In my father’s shirt pocket, always a pack of Gitanes. I loved that package. Wanted to be the Spanish lady when I grew up. Shake a tambourine. Ah, my father. He built chimneys for a living. The chimney is the feather in the cap, he’d say, his accent stubborn. He laid brick, stone, concrete blocks. Climbed ladders to the sky. He was king of flues and updrafts. Tossed his little girl into the air. So proud of her English. How she pronounced spark arrestor, wall thimble, vent pipe, back-puff, directional cowl. I grew up, polished and pretty. At sixteen landed a bit part in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. On closing night, kissed my hero backstage inside the folds of the velvet curtain (what did my father see? how could he know?). When the applause stopped, so did my life. I was shipped off to Hungary to die like the grasses, rot in the earth.
Squatting before the hearth, my grandmother ate meaty potatoes out of their skins. Scrubbed the floors of her little Budapest apartment with a vile-smelling soap. Squirted vinegar on the windows. Wiped them down with crumpled newspaper until the glass squeaked. Sometimes I’d catch her looking at me as though she understood my fundamental flaw (sex). Her words were foreign and disjointed and pierced with disappointment. At night she wept. The delicate sound of her sadness was as hard as nails. She still longed for her son, my father. All those years later, she still missed the man I now hated. And such hatred! Ferocious. Operatic. Hatred that rattled my bones.
My mother’s letters took months to cross the Atlantic. She’d taken a young lover, she said. He was like the arch of a stone bridge, necessary and pleasing to the eye. After dark, she’d feed raisins and almonds to the raccoons that slipped down from the trees. Rabies, my father’d warn, but she’d push him aside and hold out her hand to the baby ringtails trooping toward her. My father loved his child bride. What could he do but stand back and watch?
Twelve years later I returned home to find him asleep on the front porch, a big grey wolf guarding the door. An empty bottle of plum brandy tipped on its side. I shook him. Nudged his leg. He was still handsome in an aging playboy sort of way. The cab driver was watching from the street, waiting to see me safely inside. I slid down beside my father and began to talk about my life in Budapest. How I stopped eating. Took up smoking. Grew to love my grandmother. I talked about my soul-deep passion for the backstage boy who’d painted the backdrop of Don Magnifico’s rundown mansion. You almost killed me, I said, and pulled a blue and white cigarette package from my purse. My father roused. Opened an eye. He looked at the faceless gypsy woman with a clinical and tender curiosity.