ANIMAL STAINS: Apply vinegar and baking soda; then scrub.
Rosa knows Teresa is the pretty one: she has more problems. Today it’s the bath. Water running, Rosa knows Teresa will be pouring in some of the red bubble bath that smells like raspberries her sister always finds enough money for when it’s on sale. Sometimes Rosa uses it too, waiting patiently until all the bubbles disappear before calling for someone to take her out. Then, after Mamma or Teresa help her into a nightdress, she keeps the towel beside her, inhaling the faint scent of the berries on the cloth. Rosa only bathes on Sundays, but Teresa bathes whenever she wants.
Today the bath is a problem, Rosa can tell. Her bedroom is beside the bathroom so it’s easier for her to go in the middle of the night. She can hold on to the walls until she reaches the Virgin Mary in a light blue and white frock, eyes and hands pointing to the heavens in prayer. It is a good picture, and Rosa, in the dark of the night, always knows which door is the right one. Today, lying down on her single bed, she can hear a faint sobbing from the Virgin Mary’s direction like the hum from her old radio. She decides to get up, pushing against the guardrail for leverage.
Rosa slides her leg over the end of the bed where the guardrail doesn’t intrude and puts on her brace, attaching the straps across her calves, slipping her fingers through the steel wires. She can tell where the straps should be from the marks over and under her knees, slightly darker than the rest of her skin, pressed like pleats in linen. She tries to be quiet. She doesn’t want Mamma to catch her taking a peak at her sister, which she likes to do when Teresa bathes. If the door is locked, she returns to her own bed, wraps her wool blanket around her shoulders and looks through one of her picture books, her favourite about a small girl in a red dress who meets a wolf in the forest. Resting the book across her chest, she imagines herself skipping off down a path in a forest to the washroom where Teresa is and, pushing her fingers in front of her nose, imagines the smell of bubble bath or leg cream, all flowery and sweet. Then sometimes Rosa pretends to shave her legs, the way she has seen Teresa do it, propping her ankle on the bed board instead of the edge of the tub and scraping against her skin with a hairbrush. She even moans quietly, the way Teresa does once in a while, splashing the water just over her skin, hands hidden and eyes closed, cheeks flushed and breathing heavily, a sound like the soft and quick bursts made when trying to open a stuck can lid.
Rosa has to use both of her hands to keep her leg straight when she drops it lightly on the carpet to head to the washroom. She can already imagine the back of Teresa’s head, her long hair like roots descending into the water, and her long naked body half-covered in bubbles. If Mamma were to come down the hallway, collecting laundry from the hampers placed just outside of each door, it would be easy to pretend she’s just checking to see if she can use the bathroom. She could even hold on to the elastic waistband of her pants and wriggle her upper body a little.
Today the door is locked. Rosa frowns, but then remembers. She has an excuse to go in. Teresa is crying: she has a problem. Rosa might be able to help. She knocks. No sound, not even sobbing. Resting her head against the door, Rosa’s cheeks flatten into the Virgin Mary’s tight hands.
“Get away from the door, Rosa.”
Rosa doesn’t budge. “But you’re crying. I can help.”
“Rosa, listen to me. I’m fine. Just get away from the door.” Teresa’s voice is firm, but low.
“You feel sad, Tera?” Rosa wishes she could get on the floor and peak through the crack, but she wouldn’t be able to get up without help.
“Go away Rosa. Right now!” Rosa recognizes the “I don’t have time for you” voice. Teresa doesn’t use it often, but when she does, Rosa is expected to obey. As she bows her head beneath the Virgin Mary’s chin, her eyes begin to tear.
“Sorry, Tera. I don’t mean it.”
Teresa danced with boys, close if the songs were slow, like the songs she usually liked to listen to in the bath.
Rosa hears sniffling. “Just go and read and maybe I’ll tuck you in later.” Then guitars and drums, insistent and hard, blare through the door. Rosa’s voice can’t compete, so she ambles back to her room.
After taking off her brace and placing it neatly upright, Rosa crawls back into bed. She likes to lie down all alone, pretend she’s wearing white shoes and a red dress with fancy beads, and that there’s a bouquet of pink flowers by the nightstand given to her by some boy. Tonight she pretends this boy has a ticket to the school dance. Last month Teresa took her. Rosa liked handing over the ticket. “I’m here,” it said to her. “Look at me.” Some boys were turned away, ones with tickets too, who smelled and walked funny. But they never turned Rosa away. Miss Brown told her she looked pretty, and Teresa bought her an orange drink at the booth, leaving Rosa with her. Rosa didn’t need to go with a boy, that’s just what a lot of girls did. Teresa danced with boys, close if the songs were slow, like the songs she usually liked to listen to in the bath. Before, dances had been a problem, when Teresa and Rosa were at separate schools. But now Rosa also attends the high school, though she stays in the same class, not like Teresa who spends her day moving from one room to another with different textbooks. Teresa doesn’t have class with Miss Brown, but Rosa does. Miss Brown helps Rosa with her sewing, since she is one of the few allowed to sew.
“That girl’s gonna get in trouble, Mamma. I had a dream—” Papa’s voice is harsh and he coughs when he yells too loud. Mamma must be rubbing his back, Rosa thinks. Maybe she could check, make sure Papa hasn’t hurt his chest, but Mamma doesn’t like it when she knocks on Papa’s door without asking. “You need to be sure of his mood,” Mamma told her. “He’s sick.”
“I’m sick too,” Rosa replied.
“No, you’re not, Rosa. Don’t say that again. And don’t say that to the neighbours. They don’t understand.”
Rosa can hear Mamma stomping down the hallway. She is crying too, and Rosa imagines a white handkerchief dangling from her fingers, grey hair hanging out the back of her net.
“Teresa. Get out of there right now!” Mamma knocks vigorously. Rosa lifts her back off the bed to get a look into the hallway. This is certainly “a commotion,” what Mamma said Rosa shouldn’t do outside in front of anyone, that if someone speaks to her she should pretend she can’t speak English and point to the house. Maybe Mamma can’t help making “a commotion”; Rosa sometimes couldn’t help it. Maybe Mamma thinks the bathroom is dirty or the music is too loud.
“Just a minute, Mamma.”
The music stops. Hands clenched into fists, Mamma turns and thumps down the stairs. Rosa can hear the plug being pulled, the water swirling and burping down the drain, and Teresa getting out of the tub. Soon after, the lock unfastened, Teresa emerges in a white terry-cloth robe, black hair frizzed up even though it is wet and should be straight and heavy. Teresa didn’t comb it, Rosa thinks. But she always gave her hair a good combing in the bath or else it hurt the next day and Mamma would need to help her, the way Mamma always combs Rosa’s hair.
“Teresa Maria Campanous!”
“One minute, Mamma! I have to get some clothes on!”
“Ha! Clothes! You better put some clothes on and keep them on—”
“Mamma, I’m coming! Please!”
“If I could walk . . .” The coughing stops Papa’s sentence.
Teresa halts at Rosa’s door, her face red and prunish. “You go to sleep, Rosa.”
Rosa nods and pulls the covers over her head, imaging herself in a car with guitar and drum music playing, wind from an open window sweeping up her hair. After fifteen minutes, Rosa wants to close her door, but doesn’t want to get up. She hates it when people talk loud, but not loud enough to pass through doors. Then it’s just noise and it hurts to concentrate.
A half-hour later, her sister walks by again. “Tera,” she whispers, but Teresa turns off the light off in the bathroom and shuffles to her room at the other end of the hall.
Once again, Rosa puts on her brace and steps quietly out her door. She holds onto the walls, past the bathroom, past Papa’s room, to Teresa’s room. Without knocking, she inches the door open with her foot and Teresa, crouched on the floor, shoves some clothes under the bed. Looking up, Teresa sighs, but with a finger against her lips waves to Rosa to come in and quietly shut the door.
“You need those washed, Tera?”
Teresa wipes her eyes and kicks a pant leg further underneath the bed. “No.”
“I can wash them.”
“No, Rosa. And don’t tell Mamma.” Teresa has slipped back into her bathrobe. Rosa notices how red her legs are and that the yellow sponge from the bathroom in her hand has red blotches on it.
“You cut yourself shaving? You gonna take another bath?”
Teresa doesn’t answer. She gets up, sits on the edge of her bed, and pats the place beside her. Rosa sits down. Rosa likes Teresa’s comforter. It’s pink, like the walls.
“Pretty clothes, Tera. Can I have them, if you’re gonna throw them away?” Rosa likes to get clothes from Teresa. Teresa has store-bought clothes instead of wearing only the dresses Mamma makes.
“No. They’re no good. They’re garbage.”
Rosa gasps, knowing Mamma does not like it when they throw things in the trash.
“Good for rags then, Tera. Good for—”
“Listen, Rosa. This is important,” Teresa stresses, gripping Rosa’s arm. “And you don’t tell Mamma.”
Rosa concentrates, staring at the pink comforter. There are things Rosa must not tell Mamma. That’s what sisters do, she knows, keep secrets. Rosa waits, but Teresa’s hand starts shaking, and the sash on the white robe grows a spot of pink.
“Oh, Christ.” Teresa pulls off the white robe in front of Rosa, her slim naked body with small, tight breasts and just a triangle of hair between the legs open to Rosa’s eyes, presses the sponge against her thighs, then grabs a large T-shirt from the back of the closet.
“Don’t say that. You’re not allowed to say that. Did Mamma do that to you?”
“No.” Pulling the t-shirt over her head, the hem under her thighs, she sits back on the bed, takes her pillow and lays it over her lap. “An animal did,” she adds, as if to her legs and not to Rosa. Now Rosa starts to shake, imagining the wolf from her picture book, his fangs bared and growling.
“Rosa, some boys are bad. This is our secret.”
“Not the boys you dance with.”
Teresa makes a noise like biting on hard candy. “No, not the boys I dance with, but that’s only where the people are, the teachers.” Rosa nods, holds out her hand to touch Teresa’s legs.
“Don’t touch, it hurts. Listen to me, Rosa. This is a secret.” Rosa really must concentrate. The pink comforter is no help. She bites down on her lip, tasting her own blood, hot and salty.
“Some boys don’t listen when you’re alone with them. Don’t be alone with a boy.”
“You have problems because you’re pretty,” Rosa says, touching her tongue, blotting at the blood with her finger. She and her sister both have dark eyes and hair, but Rosa’s is cut short since she can’t brush the tangles by herself. Rosa’s face is defined by the same long eyebrows and oval face, yet it’s stretched wide, making all her features larger than Teresa’s. Rosa has larger breasts and thighs too, a version of what Teresa might look like one day in middle age. Only the one leg has never grown into the shape of a woman.
“Oh Rosa, what did you do? Did you bite your tongue? Who told you that?” Teresa frowns, stroking the top of Rosa’s head, blotting at her lip with the sponge.
“I heard Mamma and Papa say it about you. You get problems when you have a pretty girl in a big city. I’m not pretty like you. No problems for me.”
“Rosa, a boy might ask you to go alone with them sometime. You don’t go. You understand?”
Rosa taps her foot. She can’t imagine any boy asking her to go away with him, although there had been the boy who offered to walk her to the washroom at the dance. Miss Brown said he was a nice boy, and he was. He smelled like pinecones, and he took her to the bathroom upstairs, the far one, he said, because Rosa must like to have fun. Rosa giggled, said she did, and he put his hand on her blouse to fix her button. Rosa laughed, because he missed her button. Then the door opened, a young girl came out drying her hands against her yellow dress, and so she went in after and then he took her back to the dance. He hadn’t asked her to go away with him. He hadn’t asked her anything, not even her name. One day, Rosa knows, Teresa will go away. Go away with a boy, marry and have babies like their mamma.
“It’s hot there, Tera?” Teresa nods.
“I know,” Rosa says, taking the tube of cream off Teresa’s end table, “I’ll put this on your legs and you’ll feel better.”
Rosa opens the bottle and squeezes the white liquid into a mound onto Teresa’s sponge. Teresa stretches out her legs, and Rosa smells the flowers, but another smell too, something Rosa can’t make out, a strong smell, not very nice, maybe the smell of an animal, like her sister said, like the smell on your clothes when dogs get too close to you. Then she remembered walking one day with Teresa when a dog peed on the fence next door. Rosa laughed at the funny streak it made, and Teresa told her dogs do that to show where they’ve been. Now Rosa, too many images in her mind, is confused. Berries. Wolf. Boys. Trash. Dogs. She can’t imagine everything together. Better to concentrate on Teresa’s legs.
“You smell nice, Tera,” Rosa tells her, but Teresa isn’t looking at her. Her face is covered with her arm and she curls herself up into a ball.
When Rosa goes back to bed, instead of looking at her picture book, she takes out her hairbrush and pretends to shave her legs until the bristles scratch her skin. “Look at me. I’m here,” she says to the wolf and the girl in the red dress. Then she turns off the light, and thinks about her secrets.
TEAR STAINS: You’re the only one who notices them.
The week before Magdala married, all those years ago in Portugal, her mamma passed down her wedding dress and her mourning dress. Her own husband had been dead almost twelve years so she didn’t need to wear the full black suit with the veil. She only needed to wear black. Magdala had been staring at the white frilly fabric, the delicately beaded cuffs and collar, wondering if the women had already altered the waist and the lace on her shoulders to suit her own figure, when the black attire was thrown on top of her already full arms: an ankle-length starched skirt, a long, billowy, black knit blouse and a short veil. “Every woman needs to prepare, Magda,” her mamma told her. “My mamma did the same for me. She wore both of those. You’re next.” She hugged her daughter in rapture, the dresses collecting under Magdala’s chin and bristling her ears, the black veil crossing her face like a net. She could barely see her mamma hunched over, arms wound tightly as string, pinching her ribs. As the smell of the bread rising in the kitchen mixed with the sting of the boiled onions and zucchini, mother and daughter thought of all the preparations that still had to get done before morning. Suddenly, they both started to cry.
Now Magdala sheds her tears on paper, the letters she receives from back home. News about the others, cousins she’s never met, and her only sister, Maria, who stays home with her mamma. They try to keep in touch, offer news about the weather, gardens, weddings or births, and Magdala smells each sheet of paper as it passes behind the next one as if Portugal were contained in the neat lines and could be unzipped like a package. Then she carefully folds the papers, ties them with string, and adds them to the others neatly stored in the shoebox of her closet. She received another letter today, but won’t read it until all the laundry is hung and she can retreat to the basement with a cup of hot tea.
As Magdala clips another white undershirt to the line, she wonders, not for the first time, why they decided on this house over twenty years ago. There were other houses made of red brick on the same street, but they were red, not grey, and this house’s driveway was clearly marked by two stone walls on each side of the entrance, two stone lions carved at the feet of the road. She wanted the house because of the privacy, the black gates around the front and back and those grey walls. Now she wishes she had chosen one of the houses with a shared driveway or an open front yard where the children could have played ball or skip and not run into gate or stone. But there was the issue of money. That’s why they’d picked the Italian neighbourhood in Toronto instead of the Portuguese one. It was closer to Tonio’s work and they didn’t have a car. She thought it wouldn’t matter since they were sending the children to English schools and teaching them bits of Portuguese around the house. But now Teresa knows more Italian than Portuguese, picked up from years of talking to other children and their parents on the street, and Rosa, well Rosa, when they realized what was wrong with her, they were thankful she would grow up in a neighbourhood where the children might tease her in a language she wouldn’t understand. But Rosa too learned Italian. It was only Magdala who did not, and when she hangs her laundry, which is almost always since Tonio’s undershirts and sheets need cleaning on a daily basis, she can barely see the neighbours let alone speak to them. Shaking out a wet sheet, Magdala tries to remember the last time she spoke a word outside the house or the grocery store, when she didn’t just wave curiously over walls. Was it last summer? Last fall? Yes, it was last fall, when the Korean couple who run the corner store were robbed. A teenager in a ski mask hit the man over the head and asked for all the money. They called the police, Teresa told Magdala, but nothing could really be done about it, except that the Korean man had four stitches on his scalp. The next time Magdala went to buy a carton of milk, she’d said, “Sorry. So sorry to you and your wife.” She felt like she was about to cry, and he looked confused, asked her if she needed help with something. “No. No. It’s just good that you’re in the neighbourhood,” she said, but she knew she’d said everything wrong, should have made herself clear that she’d heard about the robbery. Stunned to be talking to someone, Magdala could barely get her change back in her purse and walk herself home.
There was another Portuguese family that lived down the street beside the parkette, but they moved. They had an extra large garden and even grew pumpkins in the fall. For a while, Magdala and the other woman exchanged vegetables, recipes and sympathy cards, although they never went for walks or had tea unless there was a chore involved. Children and husbands had to come first. But it was nice to buy bread or compare fabric prices together, to speak the language of her mamma and her sister with someone besides Tonio. Then, ten years ago, when the last of the woman’s children had left home, she and her husband moved to North York, and Magdala was alone once again.
Magdala misses her mother, although she would never write that in a letter. It’s alright for her mother to say she misses her, and Magdala is sure the letter in her pocket will contain this declaration, but for Magdala to say she misses her mother means there is trouble in her marriage, and trouble in the marriage is never something to share with one’s mother. These kinds of things are not to be discussed. Her mamma had outlived her husband already by a generation, and Magdala couldn’t help wondering what her mamma thought about her own life, her own marriage, if she had planned to be with Papa forever instead of her daughter and was deeply pained, or if she was secretly relieved that Papa had died quickly and young, that she would never have to see him suffer or lose interest in her. These are things Magdala cries over, because it isn’t right to ask. And it isn’t right either to ask why Mamma had been so intent for Magdala to marry an older man, her senior by twenty years. But she knows why. Their village was dying. All the young men were moving to cities, to other countries to find work. Tonio had money, was kind and was travelling to a better place, if a snowy one.
Oh, the snow! Magdala knows it’s on its way. She can smell its crisp foreboding in the air. Only a few more weeks, maybe less, and she will no longer be able to hang her laundry outside, but will have to retreat into the basement to avoid all the falling leaves and frosts. Mamma, she thinks, staring up at all the billowing fabrics, how I wish I had stayed with Mamma, lain in her arms a little longer, not taken away her dresses whether she wanted to get rid of them or not. Soon Magdala will need the black dress. Tonio can’t hold out much longer, it’s only her constant care that has kept him alive for so long. The blood on the handkerchiefs spells his end, just as the first leaves on the ground spell the end of summer. The doctors are all pessimistic about his chances. Yet he holds on lazily, and her hands bleach out the secret messages she can’t write to her mother, can’t tell her neighbours.
What happened to that Italian boy who used to work on the cars at all hours of the night? Magdala doesn’t know, and she can’t ask. Teresa had liked him, and Magdala had worried maybe they were sweet on each other. Too young. Too young. My little Teresa must stay little forever, free of men, free of marriage, free of sickness and death, she thought then. Now she sees a daughter full of life, full of prettiness, full of thoughts Magdala never had. What was it she said? She wanted to take courses in business? Maybe open a clothing store in the west end before the rents rise too high? Yes, that was it, but Magdala had stopped listening, imagining a boy in a ski mask hitting her over the head to get her money. “Better to get married,” she told her. “Have someone buy you a house, make a vegetable garden.” Even that Italian boy would be alright, she thought, since he knows a trade. And Teresa listened, or else she got herself into trouble first and listened later, but now there is a ring, she showed her the ring, and that other boy in the car was the man’s cousin, yes, and she’d been dizzy because she’d fallen on the sidewalk, which is why he took her home. There was no need to get so upset and Papa wouldn’t stop about his dreams, but everything is fine. He’s Portuguese too, but from Brazil. “Nice eyes, strong face and hands,” Magdala told her daughter after shaking his hand for the first time. “A little dark, but that happens in Brazil. Everyone is mixed.” Sheepishly, head bowed, Teresa said, “I will have to learn how to run a restaurant. He owns a restaurant, Mamma, with his brother. Maybe one day Rosa can help out, and we can open a clothing store, too.” Magdala nodded happily, but wondered how much of it all was true. In the old days, Tonio would have gone out in the streets, asked around, met all the cousins and the rest of the family, but now Magdala just has to trust her daughter.
Once a year, Magdala bleaches the wedding dress to keep it fresh and white, make sure moths and mould don’t have their way. Tough fabric, it has held for three generations and likely more if Teresa is careful when she has a daughter of her own. The long and simple skirt, straight cut with a thick circular line and laced at the waist, is probably back in style. The high neck and round pearl beads along the chest are elegant without being grand, the lace sash and cuffs symmetrical as butterfly wings. Wedding dress first, mourning dress afterwards. Magdala is lucky, the first in three generations who hasn’t lost her husband a decade before the first child reached adulthood. And Rosa will be here to take care of her when she starts to slip. Just like her own sister and their mamma. Family tradition if one of the children is born that way. A curse on the child, but a blessing on the mother since she will never be left alone. And Magdala needs the help. Her back is already sore after only two loads of laundry. There are still cucumbers and zucchini to peel, and she promised to teach Rosa cross-stitches this afternoon. The house will need to be changed to suit her, Magdala reminds herself as the wooden pins clip each thought to the clothes and sheets. Shelves must be heightened, the garden properly marked, the bathroom cupboards switched and, of course, all the bedrooms must be rearranged so Rosa can start to learn to take care of Magdala. It won’t be long after papa that she too . . . She will need to teach Rosa. Teach her things like what Magdala knows from the letters . . .
. . . the weather’s hot. Mamma screams in her sleep. I worry. She’s old. She talks about Papa. She never used to. She talks about her wedding and all the trips they were going to take before he died. Hated her own mamma for not telling her about boys and she was so scared when her belly started to grow. She drinks three jugs of water a day and walks back and forth to the bathroom all night . . .
A wall of white in front of her, blocking everything else from view, Magdala thinks of her wedding night in Portugal, how the town had danced under the yellow lanterns her family had hung from the trees, and Tonio, a few grey hairs across his temples, had twirled her in his arms, called her his little girl. Leaning against the stone bricks, another letter in her pocket, another load of laundry hung, she wonders who will send sympathy cards, and how they’ll afford Teresa’s wedding.
WINE STAINS: Pour lots of salt onto the stain, dunk into cold water and rub out.
Inside Tonio are two dreams: fire and water. His wife, Magdala, helps lift his large back away from the bed, holds him across the armpits to prop up his pillow, then slowly releases him. He recovers like a blade of grass. Looking out the window, he can see his undershirts and sheets on the line in the backyard, wooden pins marking the days he has survived in the trenches, all flags of white. “I surrender,” he wants to tell his dreams. “I surrender.” But still the shirts and sheets are hung.
Morning is roll call. Magdala peels off his shirt, throws it in her plastic basket. Then she pulls down the blankets, exposing limp legs like useless, splintered crutches, his olive skin wan and yellow without sun. She pats his thighs, meaning he should attempt to rise a little so she can slip off his underwear flipping it quickly inside out and back again to examine it for stains. Into the same basket they go, whether or not there are any. A washed pair then appears, white cotton with an elastic waistband, a thin stripe of blue or black across the top. He doesn’t watch, can’t look down there without shaking. The only time he mentions it is if the band has caught on any hair.
This morning Tonio was dreaming before the sun hit his face. Shielding his eyes, he still saw Magdala opening the door, already dressed and working. “Papa,” she said. “Time to get up.” The sun denies him of his dreams, though he’s been trying to embrace them, keep himself in the dream’s arms so it will end. He wants to know how everything turns out, what happens after the fire and water rush over him. Magdala inspects the sheets for stains, tucking in stray sides as she does so, and leans in as she kisses him on the forehead to smell for sweat. This morning she doesn’t need to change the sheets. Maybe later. She checks three times a day, more if he screams.
There are bombs inside Tonio’s body: little bombs that go off randomly but persistently in twos or threes. Hot, hot, hot they shoot up his arms and down his legs like burns, smelling like sulphur, stinging his nostrils. Tonio feels like he’s had his hand on a hot stove for the last six years. And then there are the tides. Ones that swell inside his throat and want to rush out onto the bed, others that stir and churn inside his stomach as if a drain were plugged. They steam inside him, pound against his veins, pour out of his body. Every entry a spout. “Move on,” he tells the tides. “Keep marching and you’ll overtake them.” Tonio knows the tides and the bombs are a part of him, and yet they are also enemies, trying to silence him, making it difficult for him to speak his words or tell his dreams. They don’t want to be detected. Masters of camouflage.
“There are bombs, Magda.” He wants to tell her more, but the small dish is in front of him and Magdala has put a plastic spoon in his right hand.
“The war is over, Tony. You’re at home.” She walks over to the window on the left side of his bed and opens the blinds. The sun rushes against her face, turning her into an outline. Tonio would rather the blinds were shut. It’s harder to fall asleep in the afternoons with the sun in his face and his eyes are too sore to read any more. Because the blinds are cracked, even when shut the few missing rungs allow for light and the sight of his laundry waving in the breeze, his empty shirt sleeves helpless.
Tonio slams his hand down on the bed, trying to pound out his words. He starts to cough and Magdala rubs his back, procures a handkerchief and holds it in front of his mouth to catch the spit. “The doctor is coming tomorrow, Papa.” He shakes his head and coughs harder. Magdala rests her basket, sighing as her body relieves itself of the burden of the weight, and calmly waits for the fit to pass. Sometimes she hums, trying to soothe him or, if his eyes are open, smiles to show him she’s not worried. He tries to focus on the photographs hung on the right wall, pictures of the girls and Magdala when she was younger, recently arrived in Toronto, in front of the new house. Tonio, with hand gestures and broken English, had asked one of the neighbours, now he can’t remember which, to take the photograph for them. The camera was also new. It was a time of new things. Rosa would be born in less than a year. Teresa three years later.
“No more doc—” Two bombs explode up Tonio’s arms. His head slams against Magdala. She holds her face, biting her lip to hold in the pain. “Okay, Tony,” she says. “No more doctors. It’s easier on the children.”
Tonio’s fire abates and he hands her back the damp handkerchief. She throws it in the basket, places a white one on the nightstand. He feels small in the room, in the king-sized bed, as if he’s been shrinking. He remembers when he was first brought in here, for good, he was sure the room didn’t have enough air, that he wouldn’t be able to get used to the cramped space. But, over the years, the room has become a whole land, a settler’s field he has lost the strength to plough, and he anticipates that soon he will be reaped, shucked into a wooden barrel and delivered elsewhere. He starts to eat, the hot porridge massaging his gums. Magdala leaves the room, closing the door behind her.
One day Tonio might like to sleep with the window open, maybe dream about wind, but he can’t reach. The one time he tried, Magdala caught him, screamed, and he lost his balance and fell on the floor. It took both girls to lift him back on the bed. “Don’t move, Papa. You could hurt yourself,” they warned him. He asked, “What do I do if there’s a fire?” “There’s no fire, Papa,” they said. He tried to tell them, waving his fingers frantically through the air in circles like smoke. “Hold his hands down,” Magdala told the girls. “He might hit himself.” And they obeyed, strapping him down on the bed, unaware of his melting skin.
Tonio can hear the rumble of the washing machine through the vents, its starts and stops, the regular burbling of the wash cycle. He imagines his clothes, their stains, drowning in the water, spitting out into the basin. Before, they had talked about moving him to the basement. Fewer stairs, and Magdala spent most of her day down there doing chores. They could be closer. She could reach him earlier if needed. And he would have a window at ground level to call her when she was outside. “We could make it nice, Tony. I could hire someone to move all the furniture and put down a carpet.” He protested. “Too much work for you, Mamma. You have enough to do already.” But there were days he wished he would wake up and find himself down there in the basement, listening to the washing machine, dreaming of thunder and hot rains and bleached white sheets spinning.
Tonio feels sealed by her lips, to be opened later when she has the time to sit and love him.
In many of his dreams, Tonio is crawling in the garden, pushing down the lines of wooden stakes with his arthritic hands, his feet dragging behind in the dirt like heavy luggage. He can hear the push of the water and smell the pull of the smoke; this is when the dreams combine. To his left are all the fabrics hung on the line, motionless without wind, necklines drooped like people in prayer. The endless days he struggles in and out of those lines stand erect. “I surrender,” he tries to say, but can’t get the words out; he tries, but has to keep his mouth shut against the smoke, his eyebrows starting to burn. He can feel each individual hair parting. The neighbours, the ones he remembers from years ago, the Italian couple with the large van and the three boys, yes, it was the man who had taken the photograph for them the day they moved in, are in their backyard, drinking or walking, the boys playing ball or running under a sprinkler, yelling in English mixed with Italian. He can barely understand either, but he knows basic words. “Water,” he yells, but no one hears him. They are busy playing and talking, and no one sees him crawling on the ground. The last time he had the dream, he got further and started to dig in the garden with his hands, pulling up cold, black soil. Maybe if he planted himself upside down and perfectly straight, like a carrot, he thought, it would all be over. He would have figured it out. He had been digging, holding his breath to keep out the elements, when the sun peeled open his eyes this morning.
Magdala returns with a letter, places it on his nightstand beside the handkerchief, smiling, her cheeks cracked with deep lines. “A letter, Papa, from Portugal. I’ll read it to you later.” Tonio nods, pleased to see her smiling, the ribbons of white hair twirled into a bun, reminding him of the flowers she wore on their wedding day.
“You’re such a good woman, Magda.” She pauses to scan his face, then kisses his forehead. Tonio feels sealed by her lips, to be opened later when she has the time to sit and love him. He knows she skips parts of the letters, probably when they ask about his health. He can tell. She pretends she can’t make out the handwriting, that, out of practice, it takes her longer each time to make out the Portuguese, and then she flips the page behind the envelope. Sometimes she says, “Oh, this part isn’t interesting to you. It’s just a recipe.” Sometimes she says nothing and hides her eyes.
“You should send your recipe for stains,” he tells her, nodding his head vigorously as he usually does when he praises her. “They always come out.” When the laundry comes back, he is often amazed by the clean slate in front of him, tells himself today, today, there will be no need for anymore. Today they will stay white…
Tonio wakes again to Magdala’s voice rolling across her tongue and teeth like waves in their old speech, the letter held up in front of her reading glasses. “. . . the weather’s hot . . . Mamma . . . drinks three jugs of water a day and goes back and forth to the washroom all night . . . Isn’t that funny, Tony?”
He nods, gives her a little chuckle and sips the glass of wine she brought him, content she let him have some in the afternoon to help him sleep. He tries to make it last, hoping if he takes his time it won’t flood his body, but already he can feel his toes filling up with fluid. He wants to tell his wife about the water dreams, how the water spreads over him like a thick wet blanket and he sinks. Wants to tell her how it feels not to breathe anymore. He wonders what her mamma dreams of, if she tells her daughter, if that is the part she skipped over in the letter. Tonio has never met anyone underneath the water in his dreams before, but maybe he hasn’t been looking. Maybe they could meet, touch hands, get out of the dream together.
“What a big garden they have again back home,” Magdala says, eyeglasses on her lap, face turned towards the window.
“You make the best zucchini.”
“It was a good year, Papa,” she sighs. “They grew big and firm. Maybe this year will be a good year, too.”
“You did it Magda.” Tonio nods vigorously and starts coughing. Magdala jumps off her stool and shoves the letter and envelope into the pocket of her apron. Silent, she hands over a fresh handkerchief, waits to see how bad the fit will be, then walks to the other side of the bed to shut the blinds, the missing ones like empty teeth in an old smile.
“I was crawling in the dirt and . . .”
“Tony, the war is over.”
No, he tries to tell her, no, no. He can’t get it out; only the coughs. The fire swells in his lungs. Tonio wants to build himself a shelter in the garden, beside the zucchini, the firm and large vessels almost as tall as the stakes, wants to become one of them, wrapped in tough wax, plucked ripe. He has a plan, wants to tell Magdala he has a plan, if only he could just finish his dream uninterrupted. If only he could have wind, maybe the sheets would move and someone would see he has already surrendered. When things move, people notice them, he thinks. Let me dig my hole.
Magda picks up the plastic meal tray and turns to leave. “You need anything, Papa?”
“A hole in the dirt.”
Magdala stops at the door, her back to Tonio. “Don’t say that Tony, please . . .” She closes it behind her.
Tonio wants to see the girls today, but knows that he won’t. He said too much and said it all wrong, and he curses the dreams that keep his words away, hoarding them, shoving them deeper inside his body. The little bombs are like my words, he thinks, shooting inside all hot, fiery and useless, poking me in the ribs and thighs, making me feel but not tell. Rosa and Teresa. He wants to see them. They are good girls to their papa, but Teresa’s too pretty and Rosa knows about the dreams. He can tell. She dreams too, but he doesn’t know what she dreams of, and neither of them could ever find the right words to share them. She always says, “Sweet dreams, Papa. Sweet ones today,” and Tonio wants to take her in his arms and kiss her, even though she is too big, and sometimes he can’t control his hands so the girls aren’t supposed to touch him in case they get hit. So, instead, they wave to each other, nod and once in a while Rosa combs his hair. Tonio tells Magdala what to say to them, especially if he thinks they’re in trouble. He tells her to warn Teresa about boys and Rosa about crossing the street. “Teach Rosa how to do things for herself,” he says. “Soon you’ll need her.” And Magdala has been teaching her all about the chores. She’s a good woman. She knows about these things.
Tonio never sees the girls in the dreams, but thinks that sometimes they can see him from the window. Maybe they want to see what he’ll do, if he can make it, and when he thinks this, he can feel their eyes on him like rays. Sometimes the girls hang the shirts on the line for their mamma. They help out, see the stains, wash them out. All have been passed the recipe. They know the things he can’t help doing. Know about the laundry. Some days he can smell the sting of all that salt as they pass his door in the corridor. But he doesn’t see their hands in his dreams, rubbing out his shirts and sheets, cold under the water. The hands that need to work are his own. He is the one in charge of getting out.
Good shirts, all white and strong, no holes. Tonio holds onto the one he is wearing, stripping the front off his wine-sweaty chest, crunching his hands into fists. Pulling, rocking on the bed, he tries to rip it. The top, he notices, has a stronger stitch than the bottom, so he switches his mode of attack, yanking the cloth down and up, until his fingernails hurt and he can’t catch his breath. The shirt is swollen but undefeated, and he is coughing hard again. Rosa knocks. By the height of the sound, he can tell that she is using her leg to hit against the wood.
“Papa? Papa? You need Mamma?”
He waves her away, but the door is between them. Alone. He wants to be alone. Alone with his white shirt. But he can hear Rosa’s uneven walk shuffling down the hallway, and soon she is calling for Mamma, Mamma. Magdala charges in, shutting the door on Rosa.
Tonio starts to cry.
“Have you had an accident? Don’t cry, Papa. I can wash the sheets.” Nodding, he lets her lift his frame, bend him and turn him sideways until all the corners of the sheets are untucked. Then a hard tug and a quick smell, her nose like a small animal’s. Opening the door, she hands the sheets to Rosa, the white middle stained yellow, the left corner red. Rosa trudges downstairs and Tonio knows she will start the rigorous rubbing before placing the sheets in the washer. He also knows he won’t be given any more wine to sip.
Tonio holds out his arm. He wants to touch Magdala, tell her everything is fine, that she doesn’t understand, the dream will end and soon. Wants to feel her strong cheeks, bury himself in the grey ribbons of her hair. She walks over, kisses him on the forehead, wipes away her own sweat underneath her nose. Upset that he has failed to keep everything white once again, he turns his head on his pillow and pretends to fall asleep. Magdala gives the rest of the room a quick inspection, checks the wastebasket, then the four corners, lingering for a moment on the photographs on the wall as if deciding whether or not to move them, then exits, shutting the door. Tonio stares out the cracked blinds to the garden, wonders where all the fire and water will go, what they will take with them. One day, perhaps soon, in his fits of coughing, he’ll know, and rid himself of both dreams.
RUST STAINS: Apply lemon juice and salt; then place in oven.
She is surprised it hasn’t died yet. Endlessly, every day, it turns and turns; then rests its weary frame at night, though it seems to be on its last legs, moaning and trudging along, wide torso churning.
Having insisted on helping with the wash, Teresa waits for the spin cycle to stop. With Mamma’s back trouble it’s getting difficult for her to carry the loads herself, even if the stairs are few to the basement. Soaking in salt in the metal basin are Papa’s sheets, turning the white water pink. She will scrub them with more detergent before inserting them in the next load. Soon the wash will be entirely Rosa’s job, when Teresa marries and leaves the house, although this will not happen before Papa dies. But she has her ring, her promise, her simple silver band and four-karat diamond, in the bottom drawer of her dresser, in the pocket of her good pair of black pants she wears only to funerals. Until she wears those pants to bid Papa a final goodbye, it helps him to have his girls in the house.
She showed Mamma the ring a month ago, two weeks after Wilhelm proposed, when they were out drying the laundry. But she hasn’t shown Papa the ring, or Rosa. Rosa wouldn’t be able to keep her mouth shut, they decided, and Papa still likes to think of the girls as the little children they were when he was first confined to the bedroom. No one wants to upset Papa. Mamma does the dirty work, dumping the pan if Papa is able to warn her in time, or else cleaning his underwear. Lifting his frame, she arranges him into positions for eating and sleeping, and reads letters from back home out loud to him until they are both choked up and Papa coughing. There is blood sometimes, too, that Mamma tries to hide. Teresa worries about where the blood comes from, which part of Papa hurts the most. At first she thought it was blood on Papa’s sheet, like on the clothes she threw away, and she was prepared to throw out Papa’s sheets too. But, upon closer inspection, the sweet linger of the smell informed her otherwise. So, she filled the basin with hot water and now watches it swoosh in waves beside the rumble of the machine.
When Teresa is alone in her room, she likes to hold the engagement ring in her hand, but then returns it guiltily to the darkness of her drawers when she hears Papa’s coughing. No dreaming yet of what is to come. Not that she’s anxious to leave yet exactly either. Wilhelm is a nice man, it’s not that. And handsome. They met at his restaurant, House of Rio, a diner where she and her friends sometimes stop for coffee and cake after school. Wilhelm was washing the countertops and offered her an extra slice of carrot cake. Then he started picking her up from school. Lots of her friends knew about it, about her romance with this man almost ten years older, and then a man at the restaurant, a regular customer—the one she won’t name anymore—offered her a lift. She agreed, but he didn’t take her home, not right away, and she was scared and tried to fight him, but . . . and Mamma saw her get out of the . . .Wilhelm is a nice man. He has gentle brown eyes and hairy arms and his hands are tender, even comforting on her neck and shoulders, or up and down her legs. He promises to help her open a store, promises to help Rosa. Her friends are all excited that she will be the first among them to get married. One even said it’s smart of her to get out of the whole college and university mess by plunking herself right into a family business. And maybe it is, though it’s weird to think that many of her friends will be in school when she’s married and washing restaurant dishes, chopping vegetables, buying cakes and then, later, having babies. How will she be able to do the things in the restaurant or her store plus all the things Mamma does: cleaning, cooking, changing, gardening? For now, at least, she is just the helper with the wash, her papa’s little girl.
“Good girl,” Mamma said when Teresa produced the silver ring with the small diamond, warm from clutching it tightly in her pocket. “Just make sure you’re not showing before the wedding.”
“Mamma! I’m not pregnant.”
Mamma looked surprised, but obviously believed her, the expression on her face changing from stern practicality to a wan hope.
“Then we can wait, Tera?”
And Teresa can wait too, wait as long as she has that ring tucked away: her promise. Wilhelm won’t betray her. She visits him everyday at the restaurant, and he is, by all accounts, a man in love. “Family first,” he said, when she told him about waiting for Papa. “So many young people don’t understand that anymore. I’m glad you do.” Now she can still go to school, to the dances, shopping with friends, and take Rosa to the park or help her with sewing. And she knows her mother is happy she won’t be going to college or university to make a career for herself. “Girls are silly to want to act like men. They have no idea what men go through. The wars,” Mamma told her, “the wars could happen again, and then who will watch out for the children?” Teresa likes some of the old ways. Yes, she likes the idea of marriage and doesn’t want to be one of those girls, but there are also so many rules: the rule that makes Rosa stay in the house and take care of Mamma after Papa dies, the rule that Mamma can’t put Papa in a hospital, the rules about babies, the many babies she will be expected to have, unless she has one like Rosa.
When Teresa dreams about the wedding, she dreams about how everyone will dance, even Rosa, and the machinations behind her turn into music, the soaked sheet into a massive tablecloth. Mamma will smile, clap her hands and grab on to a chair thinking Papa is beside her. Then a tall white cake rises to the front of her mind, along with frilly decorations, and proud invi-tations, especially the ones to Mamma’s and Papa’s families back in Portugal who won’t be able to come. Her hair will be worn up, in a twist, and she’ll carry white lilies in her hands. Sure, they will have to skimp on a few things, there has never been a lot of money and Wilhelm wants to put money aside for the future clothing store, but traditions are still traditions and the nice thing is she knows she will have all the necessities no matter what happens. Mamma says so and when Papa is gone . . .
Shaking herself out of her dream, Teresa pulls off her rubber laundry gloves. Rosa offers up a skirt for her inspection, a green paisley pattern with wide swirls Teresa recognizes as the old coarse fabric from the basement curtains.
“Look at the stitches, Tera!”
Teresa examines the cloth, turning it over and inside out. The stitches are firm when she tugs. Obviously nervous, humming to herself and tapping her good leg, Rosa beams when the stitches hold.
“Very good. Really good,” Teresa tells her, the spin cycle rolling on behind them, and it is. Rosa is good with her hands, learns quickly if you show her exactly how. There are times Teresa thinks that Rosa has the most talent, and could make a wonderful wife, if she just wasn’t the way she is. In a certain light, Rosa appears almost grandmotherly, her thighs loose like after childbearing, her breasts down to her stomach if she isn’t wearing a bra. It makes Teresa wonder what kind of children she will have, if she might resemble Rosa more afterwards.
“I made it for you to dance in. Put it on.”
Smiling, Teresa slips the skirt underneath her dress, pinning the hem of her dress upside down under her armpits. Rosa’s firm hands zip it up in the back. The skirt is a little formless for Teresa’s taste, and the pattern is faded lime in a couple of spots, but it fits and rests pleasantly at the knee.
“Thanks, Rosa,” Teresa says, taking it off and placing it in the laundry basket she will use later to carry the clean clothes.
Rosa sways her arms and pounds her foot on the ground to the thumping of the washing machine until the strap on her brace comes off. Grimacing, Rosa bends down to fix it, the canvas strip tight in her fist like rope.
“I’m not too good at dancing.”
“Sure you are, Rosa. You’ll dance soon.”
When Rosa has tied the strap back securely, Teresa picks up some wooden pins. “You did a fine job, Rosa. Now Mamma could use some help outside.”
Rosa accepts the pins as they drop into her hand. Teresa waves her on and Rosa obeys. Mamma’s worn running shoes pass by the window.
The washer goes into a fit, the little shelf holding the cleaners suffering a tiny earthquake. But Teresa knows the routine. It always does this moments before resting. Coughing and spitting up water, banging against the concrete wall, it sweats itself dry. Then there’s the silence that means it’s all over. But, this time, before the silence arrives, Teresa abandons her dreaming and runs upstairs to check on Papa.