Nate House has been published in Troika Magazine, Chesapeake Bay Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Roadbike Magazine, The Philadelphia Weekly, and The Philadelphia Tribune. His novel, Float, won the Frances Israel Award for fiction, and he currently teaches Journalism and Composition at Cumberland County College.
Her feet were cold. He had clutched the comforter tight in his hands and rolled away from her, leaving her toes exposed in the cold morning air. It was still dark when she placed those toes on the wooden floor and wiggled them slowly in an attempt to warm them. She grunted and stood.
She placed her feet into the slippers he bought her, took the faded green terry-clothe robe from the hook on the door and put it on. The slippers covered only the front of the foot and were nothing more than thin pieces of cardboard lined with imitation rabbit fur. She walked to the bathroom, pulled the small metal chain and looked in the mirror. She didn’t bother to brush her teeth or wash her face.
Downstairs she turned on the large bread ovens in the back and the large espresso machine in the front. Through the storefront window she could see the old men driving their rusted trucks, piled high with Jersey fruit, to their stalls along the Italian Market. The stalls were made of rotted planks of wood bolted to metal frames with ancient wheels. Even though the stalls had wheels they hadn’t moved for over thirty years. It was late winter and despite the frost in the air she could still smell the decaying fruit and rotting fish left in the gutter.
She was old and Yugoslavian, if there was such a nationality anymore. Even if it still existed she had not been Yugoslavian since she was sixteen and married her husband. He was Italian and she learned how to speak Italian and how to cook pasta and cream sauce instead of stuffed sauerkraut leaves. She had become so much of an Italian that no one in the market ever suspected her of being anything but Italian, even when she told them she had been born in Ljubljana. They said she cooked bread like someone from Bologna, made a cup of espresso like someone from Naples. What did they know? Did they think that only a person from the very loins of Romulus and Remelus could measure yeast and taste just the right amount of salt? Could only someone whose family had survived the explosion of Vesuvius know how to make a perfect cup of coffee? Her Slavic background was her secret, the thing she kept hidden, and the proof of their ignorance.
Even her husband seemed to forget that she was once something else. He did not know that sixteen years was plenty of time to form ideas and dreams of what life could be like, even though she could no longer remember what they were.
When the espresso machine was fully heated she packed the metal filter with coffee grounds and slipped it into the machine. She heard it hiss and watched the black liquid drip into the tiny cup. She put in two full spoons of sugar and drank it down in a single sip. She took a cigarette from the crumpled pack in the front pocket of the robe, lit it and stared out the front window. The sun was coming up behind gray clouds and she wished she had more coffee. She looked back at the small dirty cup on the counter and it suddenly looked ridiculous. American coffee seemed so much more practical. But her husband wouldn’t hear of it, even though he was the one who insisted on coming to America.
The two of them ran a bakery and coffee shop near the south end of the market. They sold bread, espresso and cappuccino. She had tried to get him to sell pastries as well, but he said that bread and coffee was enough. He said they had to specialize. Everyone in the market specialized. They couldn’t just sell meat. It had to be beef, pork, fish or poultry. And now that they had all specialized few people shopped in the Italian Market anymore. Why would they when they could get everything they needed from a single grocery store that offered two for one coupons? Even she shopped under the fluorescent lights of the neighborhood Acme once every two weeks.
They had come to America shortly after they had been married. She had gone from Yugoslavian, to Italian, to Yugoslavian-Italian-American, all before her eighteenth birthday. The boat carried 340 of them from Genova, across the Atlantic to the Delaware River, where it slowed to a crawl and inched its way towards Philadelphia. When the boat docked in Philadelphia she and her husband carried their two suitcases nine blocks west and two blocks south. They had gone straight from the boat to his cousin’s house. He told them that Americans think Italians are lazy. He said its because they never walk more than eleven blocks from where they reach land.
They worked in the cousin’s fish market until they had enough money to buy the small bakery and coffee shop with the small apartment above it. They made enough money to live and pay off the building, ovens, and espresso machine. They thought they would be able to save a little, put it away, move back to Italy someday, like he told her they would. But as soon as they paid off their debts the supermarkets came.
Now they made just enough to get by, day by day, charging two dollars a loaf and one dollar fifty for espresso. The logic behind this business had been that people who stopped in for a loaf of bread would see the espresso machine and suddenly want a cup of coffee. It had worked in the days before the supermarket and even today, the few remaining old people from the neighborhood still bought their bread there and always had a cup of coffee as well. There were new customers too. Young people, not Italian, who moved into the neighborhood. They were good-looking, clean, and always seemed happy. They bought bread, drank espresso and left their change on the counter. They said “ciao” when they left.
She heard her husband’s feet touch the floor above her and she began to make his coffee. She heard him pee in the toilet, waited for the sound of a flush but it never came. He descended the stairs in a stained, cloth robe, holding tightly to the rail and trying not to bend his knees. He had played soccer when he was younger and now he wished he hadn’t. He was halfway down the stairs when she placed his cup of coffee and sugar bowl on one of the small tables.
“Buon giorno,” he said.
“Good morning,” she replied.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s cold.”
She lit another cigarette and continued looking out the window. The chicken man across the street was placing cages of fowl on the sidewalk even though he must have known that the only people who bought live chickens anymore were the Voodoo Society and frat boys from the University of Pennsylvania.
“Hai fatto pane?” her husband asked her.
“No,” she said. “I’ll make the bread.”
The ovens in the back of the shop made the small back room feel like a sauna. She lifted a large bag of flour and poured it into the large mixing bowl. She added water, yeast and salt, turned it on and watched the large, deformed hand turn the batter into dough. While the mixer turned she went upstairs and got dressed. She put on white, thermal long underwear. She liked its tightness and warmth. She put on a sweater she had made. It was white and soft, made from rabbit fur. He had been upset when she had bought the yarn farther south on the market. He had said it was too expensive. But it was too late to return, so she kept it and knit a sweater. It was the last thing she had knitted. She put on a long skirt, with bright flowers on it. This too he had thought was excessive.
“We have customers,” he called.
“I’m coming,” she said as she slipped her feet into a pair of white, canvas sneakers.
Downstairs a young man leaned against the counter. A young woman leaned against him, one of her hands in his back pocket. He wore a leather jacket. Hers was made of dark wool. They both had dark hair, were thin, and she could smell her perfume and his cologne. They smelled like rubbing alcohol and dried flowers. She had seen them before, or maybe it was just people who looked like them. They were the young, single people who were moving into the neighborhood, paying incredible prices for houses that only a decade ago were virtually worthless.
“Buon Giorno,” the young man said.
The young woman smiled.
“Good morning,” she replied.
“Due espressi per piacere.”
“Va bene,” she said.
The old woman made the small cups of coffee and saw, out of the corner of her eye, the gentle smiles and constant touching of the young couple.
“We’re going to Atlantic City,” the young man said.
“Really,” the old woman said. “I’ve never been.”
The old man went into the back to turn off the mixer.
“It’s beautiful,” the young woman said. “All the pretty lights. And the ocean.”
“I’m sure it is,” the old woman said as she placed the coffee in front of them.
She knew, that to the young people, it was all beautiful. Maybe they even thought she and her husband were beautiful in the morning light, in that old store, in their old clothes, in the way that old black and white photographs are beautiful.
When she was fifteen, she had seen beautiful things too. It was at an Uncle’s house at the beach. Her parents had sent her there from their house further inland for a vacation. They had bought her a new bathing suit. It was green and white. For a week she did nothing more than sit on the sand, read books and look out into the ocean. She looked at the flat, blue water and the sun shined like small diamonds on the peaks of the small waves. Each day a young boy dragged a blue and white skiff from the sand to the water. He said hello when he passed her. She watched him struggle with the boat, had the urge to help him bring it to the water, but never offered.
When the boat entered the water the boy pushed off the sand with his foot, sat in the middle seat and rowed out to sea until he was nothing more than a dot on the horizon. Several hours later she would watch the dot become larger, the boat crash gently onto the sand, and the boy struggle to pull the boat, the bottom now filled with silvery fish, back to shore.
“Good afternoon,” he always said.
It was a Sunday, her last day at the beach, when the boy began pulling the boat to the water and stopped beside her.
“Good morning,” he said and sat next to her.
“Good morning,” she said and looked down at the sand.
She did not have to look at him to see the bronzed shoulders or small but muscled arms. She had seen them every day for a week and now that he was beside her she could feel the heat of his sun-drenched skin.
“Would you like to go in the boat?” he asked.
He was older than she was, by a few years, and did not look at her when he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I would like to.”
They both stood and she walked beside him as he pulled the boat towards the sea. When the boat was half in the water he held her hand as she stepped into it and sat on the seat in the stern. When she was seated he continued pulling the boat until it became light in the water and he jumped in and began rowing.
They did not speak as he pulled them out to sea. Ahead she saw only his bare torso, the strong arms pulled the oars and the water glistened behind him. Every so often she turned to look behind her and the land become a beige sliver on the horizon. Small waves slapped against the side of the boat and it rocked from side to side each time he pulled the oars. A small pool of water rested just beyond her toes.
When the people on land were barely visible he stopped rowing. He leaned in close to her and pressed his lips against her cheek. When he sat back down in the middle seat he smiled and looked at her.
She pressed her hand against the cheek he had kissed. She couldn’t bring herself to lean forward and kiss his cheek, nor could she tell him that she wouldn’t mind if he did it again. No one outside of her family had ever kissed her on the cheek before and she could feel the blood rushing to her face. She hoped that the week’s worth of sun wouldn’t reveal her embarrassment.
The young man wanted to kiss her again and he searched for any sign that would let him know that he could. There was none, only an uncomfortable silence that rested between the two of them.
“The ocean is blue,” was all she could think of to say.
“Yes,” he said, “It is blue.”
His smile disappeared. He turned the boat around and rowed back to shore until the bow struck sand. He helped her out of the boat and left her in the ankle deep water as he returned to the ocean alone.
She wanted to yell out to him, ask him to come back, to take her again, give her another chance. The moment he kissed her she felt something she had not felt before and she wanted to feel it again. Looking back, it seemed the she left any chance for happiness in the boat, and now it was gone. She was too embarrassed to yell out to him, embarrassed to ask him to come back. She told herself she would never let embarrassment decide her life again. But it did, one year later, when the Italian asked her to marry him. She was too embarrassed to say anything but yes.
. . .
“The dough is ready,” her husband said from the back room.
“Have a good time,” she said to the young couple as they left the store, hand in hand, entered a long, new car, and drove away.
“Va bene,” she said to her husband and went into the back room.
As soon as she entered the back room he left it to go upstairs and change. She took a handful of flour and spread it across the large table in the middle of the room. The dough in the bowl was warm and sticky in her hands. She took out a handful, sculpted it into a ball and placed it on the table. She molded each ball into a perfect oval, took the serrated knife from the knife rack and made seven careful slices across the first loaf. She repeated the process twenty times and when she finished the uncooked loaves looked like a pod of beached whales.
The image of whales made her think of the ocean. The ocean made her think of the boy. The boy made her think of the happy, young couple, on the way to Atlantic City in the middle of winter.
She heard the careful depression of bedsprings above her. Her husband had gone back to bed as he often did as she made the bread. But today the springs did not stop and she recognized the sounds of sex coming from the bed and knew that her husband was alone in the room.
“Pig,” she said under her breath.
She had not heard him masturbate in several years. Hadn’t had sex with him in over a decade. If he had come down the stairs, in a different robe, had shaved and trimmed the hair coming out of his ears, wearing the cologne she had bought for him at Christmas three years ago that he had yet to open, and pressed up against her, covered her hands with his over the soft dough, she wouldn’t have left and could have pretended, for a moment, that she was happy.
She had thought of leaving before, had even packed a suitcase once, before realizing she had nowhere to go. It was after he had come home drunk, many years ago, smelling of someone else’s perfume. He seemed so happy, proud almost as he came into the bedroom where she pretended to sleep. He took off his clothes, slipped into the bed and cupped her breast in his hand before passing out. As soon as she heard him snore she packed the bag and went downstairs. Instead of leaving she sat at one of the small table and smoked cigarettes. The suitcase was empty and the bread was made by the time he woke up.
That night, and many others, came back to her as she listened to her husband’s body above her. When the springs stopped, there was only the soft sound of the gas ovens and she knew that if she stayed more stories would reach her. She wanted, more than anything else, to forget them; except for the story of the young man at the beach.
She went to the closet between the rooms and pulled out the large quilted jacket he had bought for her. It was dark purple with at least a hundred small, quilted squares and when she wore it she looked like a large, moving, purple pyramid. She took all the money in the small register and walked out the door as the small bells on the doorbell jingled.
“Customers,” he said.
She walked quickly through the neighborhood that had become Asian, Hispanic and Black. It was only two blocks from where she lived and already she felt like a foreigner. They spoke a language she didn’t understand, wore clothes she could not comprehend and she couldn’t tell if it was her age or limited life that caused these feelings of foreignness.
The neighborhood deteriorated as she walked south. The sky was cold and gray and she kept her hands in her pockets in order to keep them warm. She began to see abandoned houses with cats sitting in the vacant windows. Children played with amputated dolls on broken steps and young men leaned on falling walls. She knew she did not belong here, that it was potentially dangerous, but what did it matter? She needed to see the world outside even if it was ugly, decrepit and dangerous.
A bar stood at the next corner. Black metal screens covered the windows and a fading sign read, Don’s Place, A Place for good folks. She heard a Motown song coming from the walls. They didn’t listen to Motown where she lived. She wondered who the Good Folks were and if they would be nice to her if she sat down and ordered a glass of wine. She wondered what people were like who sat at a bar at nine in the morning.
She would have gone in to find out, but before she could cross the street a large black bus pulled up and blocked her path and parked in front of the bar. Oasis Casino was written in sparkling cursive along the side of the bus. Atlantic City’s Newest Paradise, it said. The door to the bus opened and she could hear people exit the bar and enter the bus.
Quickly she crossed the street, walked to the other side of the bus, waited until all the people from the bar had made their way into the it. She grabbed the silver handle, pulled herself up the three steps and stood next to the driver.
“How much?” she asked him.
“How much?” he repeated. “It don’t cost nothin’ to go to Atlantic City.”
She turned and faced the other passengers. Even though it was early in the morning the bus had the feel of a wedding reception about to start. The faces in the bus were mostly older, around her age, of all different races–White, Black, Asian and Middle Eastern. It looked like the bus had stopped in every neighborhood in Philadelphia and a few residents from each one had climbed aboard.
She found an empty seat by the window in the front row. The seat was large and comfortable. Frank Sinatra songs came through the speakers at a perfectly inoffensive volume and she began to move her fingers to the rhythm of the band. Behind her she could smell the liquor the passengers from the bar had been drinking. They smelled like her husband in the late afternoon.
The bus pulled away from the corner towards Broad Street where it headed straight for City Hall and from where she sat the entire city was visible through the front windshield. The sidewalks were alive with a constant stream of well-dressed people in hats and winter coats. Cabs honked at pedestrians and fancy cars. The bus circled around City Hall and she could see the breasts on the statue of Justice that guarded the East entrance. On the other side of the building that separated North from South was the remains of North Philadelphia.
The bus turned onto the highway and drove fast along the wide pavement, oblivious to other vehicles on the road. It crossed the Delaware River that had ice on its banks and a tanker moving slowly along the brown water. She was in New Jersey now, where she had been only a few times before. She had heard of the dumps, of the overpopulation, of the accents and pollution, but from where she sat, with the Atlantic City Expressway stretching before her like a yellow brick road, the state of New Jersey looked like the most beautiful place on earth. On each side of the road trees passed in a green blur and she felt like she had never traveled so fast. Before she could even close her eyes to rest she began to smell the salt air of the ocean. On the horizon she saw the tops of the casinos in Atlantic City.
In the garage beneath the Oasis Casino arrows pointed to doors where she could see the lights and circling sirens of slot machines. The bus parked, the door opened and the passengers hurried off, disappearing through the doors of the casino. She got up slowly, held the silver railing and descended the steps, savoring every moment.
“Good Day,” the driver said as she exited the bus.
“Good Day,” she said.
She walked through the glass doors of the casino, along the red carpet, between the rows of slot machines that sounded and looked like fire trucks off to a blazing fire. She looked at the stars that appeared on the sleeve of her jacket and when she looked up she saw that the ceiling was made up of thousands of tiny lights that shone down upon her purple jacket. Old men and women sat on stools with large cups of coins in their hands, mesmerized by the spinning shapes behind the small glass windows. They dropped coins into the machine, one after another. The lights, sounds, “ohs” and “ahs” of the gamblers made her feel like she was walking through a festival.
At the end of the long line of slot machines another set of glass doors opened to the boardwalk. She walked towards them, through them, slowly, like walking through a good dream. The sky was a dark gray, the water was dark green and blue and calm as a lake. Tiny waves crashed gently on the beach. A light snow began to fall. In the distance a small fishing boat rocked in the calm sea. She saw men working the nets on the boat and waved to them. She descended the steps to the sand, took off her white sneakers and socks, left them by the last step and walked to the water.
“I’m coming,” she said.
Her feet were becoming cold but she didn’t notice. Nor did she notice the snow or gray sky. The sounds of casinos disappeared and all she could hear was the gentle surf. It was a beautiful day in the summer. She was at her uncle’s house. The boy was in the water, waiting for her. Her toes entered the water, the blood in her veins turned cold.
“I’m coming,” she said.
She was up to her waist in the ocean when the doorman outside the casino noticed her in the water.
“Get out of the water,” he yelled.
Her knees buckled and she went under. How cool it felt. The salt seemed to run through her system and when her knees regained their form she emerged from the water as if she were breathing for the first time.
People on the boardwalk began to stop and point. The doorman in his red suit ran across the beach to the water. The men on the small boat stopped tending the nets to watch her.
“Wait for me,” she said to them.
She wanted to tell the young man on the boat that she would come to him, that she was no longer embarrassed and together they could disappear into the sea.
The water came up to her chest and again her knees gave out and she went under. She felt his arms slip underneath her and pull her to the surface.
“Thank you,” she said.
The doorman lifted her in his arms and she was light in the water. She began to cry. His face was so much older than she remembered it. What horrors he must have been through since she had been away. She wanted nothing more than to make it up to him.
She became heavy as he walked her closer to shore. Despite her weight he placed her gently on the dry sand before he ran to the boardwalk to get help.
“Come back,” she said and closed her eyes.
Snow continued to fall and she could feel the small flakes instantly melt on her face. She waited for the sun, convinced it would come through the moving clouds and warm the blood and bones that suddenly felt as cold as arctic air.