Authors: Pamela Grandstaff
|Rose Hill |
|ERDT Books (2012)|
by Pamela Grandstaff
This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. No part of this may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Copyright © 2012 Pamela Grandstaff
All rights reserved
Poem by Frost, Robert. “Fireflies in the Garden.” 1928.
Cover image from istockphoto.com
For My Mother
He knew he was dying. There was not much time left. The pain in his chest was worse now, arriving with the smallest exertion. The bus on which he was riding pulled into a small parking lot in front of a closed fast food restaurant and wheezed to a stop. He hoped he would be able to stand. After watching him struggle, a kind man across the aisle helped him. The kind man said something that of course Nino could not understand, but he nodded and said, “Grazia.”
He grasped a small parcel, the one he had kept safe on his flight over the ocean and during the long journey from Newark, New Jersey. His great-great-grandson, who had helped him get his passport, had written out instructions in English for the airline representative, a cabdriver, and the bus terminal personnel, so that everyone would know his great-great-grandfather did not understand English; so they could help him find a cab, find the bus terminal, and then find the right bus.
“Rose Hill,” the old man said, over and over. His great-great-grandson had made him practice it. “I want to take the bus to Rose Hill, West Virginia. Please help me.”
Everyone at home in Alghero who heard about this trip warned him about the thieves and murderers who loved nothing more than to rob and kill vulnerable old foreigners foolish enough to travel alone to America. Fortunately he had been blessed with assistance from kind people every step of the way; proof, he believed, that God meant for him to make the trip to Rose Hill, to fulfill a promise made as a young man. Now he was finally here, and he was dying.
The bus driver looked concerned but Nino smiled and waved him off. As the bus departed in a cloud of diesel fumes, he sat down in the bus shelter to rest, to catch his breath, and look around. Out of habit he patted his jacket pocket, and realized his wallet and passport must have fallen out. All he had left were his bus ticket and her letter.
‘What do I need with all that now?’ he thought to himself. ‘Soon none of it will matter.’
He looked around at the town he had left so many years before. Of course it was much changed, after 70 years anywhere would be, but some things remained the same. The bar named “The Rose and Thorn” was still there on the corner of Rose Hill Avenue and Peony Street. On paydays, he and his fellow countrymen had lifted many glasses of strong red wine in there. The building’s facade had not changed at all, just aged. It was not open now, at four in the morning, or he would have gone in and purchased a drink to warm his bones.
It was so cold he could see his breath, the white vapor rising and dissipating in the crisp air. After the stuffy warmth of the bus, it was a shock to be so cold. He wished he had a cigarette; even after forty years he still missed them every day. He knew if he didn’t get moving soon his joints would seize up. He held his cane in one hand and from the other the parcel dangled from the string tied around it. The effort it took to stand caused a pain so sharp in his chest it took his breath away. For the first time it also traveled down his arm. He knew what that meant. He was so close. Luckily it was all downhill from here.
He crossed Rose Hill Avenue, and when he reached the corner next to the bar, he could see the hulking brick buildings of the glassworks at the end of the street, down by the river. He kept that building as his focus as he slowly made his way down the hill. The houses were dark, smoke curled out of chimneys; a dog barked and the sound echoed off the hills across the river.
His great-great-grandson had done the research, so he knew she was still alive. The child had a romantic soul, much like his own. When they said good-bye at the airport, the young man had cried, knowing this farewell was the last one.
He knew she would have changed, as had he. She probably would not recognize him, but he hoped she would remember. Even if she rejected him, even if she didn’t remember who he was, he would have kept his word. He had returned to her.
At the bottom of the hill he could hear the low roar of the river, and the sharp wind off the water smelled just like it had so many years before. Memories assailed him, things he hadn’t thought of in many decades. Bittersweet didn’t begin to describe it. Heartbreaking did.
At the bottom of the hill he turned right and stepped off the pavement onto a narrow gravel road. It was a challenge to keep his balance on the uneven, rutted path. There were no streetlights here, only the light from a full moon just about to disappear behind the hills to the west.
Out of the darkness the shape of the house began to emerge, even larger than he remembered, and his memory was generous. His legs began to fail him. It seemed to take an hour to walk the last twenty feet.
When he reached the walkway to the front of the house, he could see in the moonlight that it had fallen into disrepair. The paint was peeling and a few of the windows were boarded up. Surely she could not live in such a place, could not have fallen on such hard times.
It had once been the grandest house he had ever seen, although he had only been inside it once, on the day he left Rose Hill, ostensibly never to return. The iron gate protested with a screech as he opened it, and he noticed tall grass growing up through the cracks of the broken concrete path that led up to the stairs. There were maybe ten steps; there may as well have been a hundred.
He made it halfway up the stairs before the pain in his chest became so crushing he cried out. As he fell he dropped his cane and his parcel. The steps were stone; he could feel every sharp edge as his body met them as a dead weight. He came to rest on his side but rolled over onto his back. The pain was so intense he became nauseated and dizzy. He closed his eyes and braced himself for death. Then, to his amazement, the pain eased to a dull ache. He opened his eyes.
Up on the hillside he could see streetlights and porch lights shining along with the many stars in the sky. The moon was behind the house in front of which he lay, so he could no longer see it. He wished he had thought to look at it one last time; just one more beautiful thing he had taken for granted and would never see again. Had he thought to say good-bye to the ocean, the blue sky, the sun? He had not.
He would miss so many things: birdsong before the sun rose, the dappled white, green and gold of sunlight falling through leaves, a blue sky so bright it hurt his eyes, the firm dirt beneath his feet, the buzzing of bees in the orchard, a cool evening breeze after a long day of work, babies overcome with laughter, a woman’s sigh of contentment, an old song sung with friends, the smell of lemons, a sweet, juicy peach, a smiling dog. If these things did not exist elsewhere, how could it be called heaven?
There were footsteps in the house, the porch light came on, and the front door opened. He heard a young woman’s voice, afraid, and then she was there, where he could see her long dark hair falling like a curtain on either side of her small face. A child’s face. She spoke so kindly to him, but of course he could not understand a word.
“Rose Hill,” he said. “Please help me.”
His blood had slowed in his veins, was no longer bringing warmth to his exposed skin; soon he would be as cold as the stone beneath him.
She touched his face, and the kindness that flowed out of her fingertips warmed his cheek. She talked in low, soothing tones.
‘At least,’ he thought, ‘I was not alone. I had kind people to guide me clear up to the end.’
“Grazia,” he said to the girl.
His body felt so heavy; he understood he would have to leave it behind. What had he come for? There was something he had meant to do before he went.
The young girl was holding his hand. She would not understand him, but he told her anyway:
“Tell Mary I came back for her. I kept my promise. Tell her I always thought of her. I never stopped loving her.”
The pain disappeared. He looked out toward the gate and saw his mother and father waiting there. His mother reached out to him, said, “Come with us, Nino. Where have you been? We have waited so long to see you.”
They looked just as they had the day he left Italy to come to America and work with his uncle in the glassworks. Behind them a crowd had gathered, family and friends who had all passed away over the years, leaving him alone with memories no one else could share.
It was surprisingly easy to leave behind the worn-out shell lying on the stairs as he went to the gate to join his family. It felt as if he were merely shrugging off a heavy coat.
“Tell us,” his mother said. “How is everyone in Alghero? Did the baby get over her cold? Is Carlo going to marry that puta or go to school? How is little Salvatore? We are so proud of him; so smart, that child, so good to his mother and father.”
It seemed to be bright daytime, and they were back home on the farm in the countryside outside Alghero, walking into the orchard across the road, where tables were set up for a family picnic under the trees. His uncles played music on a concertina and guitar. His grandmother greeted him warmly and offered him Lemoncelo, which she knew was his favorite. There was a feast on the table, made from recipes his grandmother had refused to divulge before she died. He was suddenly famished, and looked forward to putting away large portions of everything.
There was his wife, Elizabetta, who had died in childbirth, holding the daughter they had lost in an influenza epidemic. She held out his daughter, the one he had grieved over for so many years, and he took her in his arms. The child grasped his ears and said, “Papa” in a delighted way. He kissed the child on the cheeks, over and over.
Every good old dog he had ever buried swarmed around his legs, begging for attention. Oh, to see them all again, those he was sure were lost forever, and not to have landed in the fiery hell his priest had predicted. This was heaven. This was all he could have hoped for.
“Tell us how everyone is,” his great grandmother said, after kissing him on both cheeks. “Is Carlo really going to marry that hussy?”
He looked down at his strong arms and hands holding his daughter; his body now that of a young man. He had forgotten what it was like to feel so well, with vast reservoirs of strength and energy. Vitality was once again pulsing through his veins, returning his desire to embrace, to kiss, to reach out and connect with his family.
“I have so much to tell you,” he said, “but you had better feed me first.”
“You always did have the strongest appetite,” Elizabetta said with a knowing smile, as he grabbed her around the waist and squeezed her. “For everything.”
The old man was speaking a language Grace could not understand, except for “Rose Hill” and the name “Mary.” Then he no longer seemed aware of her presence as he looked out toward the road, as if seeing someone Grace could not see. He smiled and seemed glad to see whoever it was.
They had no phone to use to call for help. Grace knew if she woke her grandfather he would only be angry that some stranger had the gall to land on their front porch and go out of his head. He would speak cruelly to the man and refuse to go to a neighbor for help; that would be seeking charity. Plus this would all be Grace’s fault somehow, just like it always was.
The man’s voice grew softer; his words became whispery and inaudible. She knew she must hurry.
Grace considered which neighbor she should go to and settled on Cal Fischer, who was a volunteer fireman when he wasn’t working at the power plant. His wife was always kind to Grace, and their dog liked her. They lived at the other end of Lotus Avenue, across from the train depot.
“I’ll be right back,” she said to the man, and let go of his limp hand.
She hurried down the steps, across the path, and out to the lane, where the gravel-covered dirt track led to Lotus Avenue. From there she could see Ed Harrison’s truck, with her schoolmate Tommy throwing papers from the back. Ed waved to her and Grace waved wildly back. She didn’t shout for fear her grandfather would hear. She ran toward the truck as Ed stopped and Tommy jumped down from the back.
Ed used his cell phone to call the EMS while Tommy ran back to the porch with her.
“Be quiet,” she told him, “or my grandfather will hear.”
She didn’t look for his reaction to this command; she didn’t want to see it.
Tommy took off his jacket and laid it over the man’s chest. The man was murmuring but not saying anything intelligible. Grace sat down on the steps next to him and took his hand in hers.
“Help is on the way,” she told him. “Someone is coming.”
“Who is he?” Tommy whispered.
Grace shook her head and shrugged.
“I think he might be speaking Italian,” she said.
The man turned his head and looked at Grace. His eyes seemed to clear with awareness of where he was and what was happening.
“Sto morendo,” he said. “Io non ho paura di andare.”
“What’s he saying?” Tommy asked.
“I don’t know,” said Grace, “but he sounds like Matt Delvecchio’s father.”
Grace was looking into the old man’s brown eyes, so she was surprised when they were fiercely alive one second, and in the next simply were not. Whatever animating force had lived behind those eyes had gone; whether to arrive somewhere else or merely to dissipate in the air like smoke from a chimney, Grace could only wonder. Grace’s grandmother would have said his soul had gone to heaven or hell, depending upon the manner in which the man lived. On this subject Grace was undecided. There was Edgar to consider, who seemed to be neither here nor there, wherever there was. Blasphemous thoughts, she knew, best kept to herself.