Sister Rosa said that the gates of hell flew open the night of Carina’s engagement to Eugene Baker, the American who came to town on Opening Day. Some of the old women said his real name was Eugenio Bacil (when he was young) but that is neither here nor there. It would not matter whether his name were Eugene or Eugenio or even Eugeniusz, because the Devil’s fork is mightier than Cupid’s bow. That’s what Rosa always says.
So the gates of hell flew open, and we should all have seen it coming, too, when Eugene/Eugenio with the heat of the city emanating from his skin like smoldering coals drove up with his foreign car and too-tight shoes. The young Mexican boys pressed their noses to the fence to watch Manuelo El Brazo play, and man did he: First he spit a good one on the ground behind him, then pulled back and with one swift and graceful motion smacked the ball clear into left field, where Pippina Del Rosario saw the Devil slithering in the grass. A snake cannot catch a ball but he can throw a wrench into the lives of young girls with a whip of his tail. And that’s what he did that day to poor Carina Cristina Agata Alonzo.
Now, you should know that Carina was a modest girl – la modesta – and even though the old farmers’ arms were red and the farmers’ wives kept handkerchiefs between their breasts, Carina kept her small shoulders covered in a thin shawl. When the Devil took the ball from Eugene/Eugenio’s hands and put it in Carina’s lap, we did not know then that the poor girl’s fate was sealed. But no one could blame this couple-destined-to-be-in-peril because they were both young and first kisses are so sweet, even if it comes from the Devil himself.
And all through the summer La Modesta sat in the bleachers watching the strong arm of her lover while the boys cheered and the men slapped their thighs and the women sprayed Off behind everyone’s ears. And when the leather was worn through and the stitches came undone, the autumn trees bent their heads and sprayed chestnuts over the ground so the little girls could gather something for their baskets and the boys could pelt their friends in the head and get away with it most of the time.
When someone threw a chestnut that tapped the window of Sister Rosa’s home, she looked out to see a boy running barefoot across the street and said out loud to nobody in particular that evil was lurking behind the door. She knew well that no good could come when the bottoms of a boy’s feet are still dirty in September – when warm socks and shoes should be covering them.
But the sun still roasted the dirty feet of girls and boys as the school bells chimed and even as they donned masks and capes, darting door to door with pillowcases slung over their shoulders. Stuffed pavo roasted brown in mothers’ ovens and all the world waited for the coming darkness of winter. As the months passed, Carina and Eugene/Eugenio grew deeper in love. But even when they walked hand in hand under the sun or under the moon, these two lovers were never alone. Las Parcas stood at their elbows, furiously weaving, for Destiny’s path was just around the bend.
In December, on the Feast of Santa Lucia, Carina wore a wreath of candles on her head and her face glowed so prettily that Eugene/Eugenio Baker/Bacil could not resist the magic of the day and asked her to marry him. But that was not until much later because he was at the end of the procession and she was leading it in a cotton eyelet dress, her dark legs poking through like golden sunshine dappling the ground where she walked. All the jealous girls said it was really just the reflection of the fires on her head that dappled the ground, but all the boys knew and Eugene/Eugenio knew too.
On the Feast day of Santa Lucia, all the families gathered at San Francisco. And all the Italians gathered at San Francesco. And all the Polish people gathered at St. Franciszek. Bells pealed, candles were lit and incense filled the whole town. We walked the procession in a fog of billowing smoke drunken with frankincense and three kings, led by the heavy footfall of priests, the shrill voices of widows and the rumblings of old men. We walked steadily, singing the hymn of the day, the children shuffling along in patent leather shoes and raising their voices at the refrain.
That was the day that Danny fell in love in love with a large-breasted woman. He was 13 and the old men behind teased him with their elbows and whistles, but he could not help staring every time he saw her bending over the laundry basket. She was not a slender woman, but thick all around with a pretty face. He saw her as the procession turned the corner at Fourth and Grove – a large-breasted woman in a thin, flowered sundress with her breasts gushing out of the bodice like newborn heads from the womb. And when she straightened herself up he was close enough to see that she was not young.
It was not that Danny had never seen a large-breasted woman before. His grandmother and old aunts had breasts as large as watermelons. But the woman he saw did not breathe loudly or yell at the person inside the house. She looked pleasant and mild and her skin glowed as if it was still young and taut. But of course, he was just thirteen so he did not know this was why he loved her. All he knew was that it was inevitable that the breasts would emerge soon and he desperately wanted to see them. But Carina did not know this and the priest did not know this, and his mother lurched at his heels, so Danny kept walking and singing “Santa Lucia” in a crackling falsetto.
Later Danny would eat the Santa Lucia cookies and spill powdered sugar on his pants, same as every year, and his mother would yell at him and he would look at her sheepishly because he was still thirteen.
Rosa lived in a skinny shack behind the box factory, the one with the green perforated walls over by the railroad tracks. Young boys would run their arms against it so that their hands were red and torn from nails that stuck out. Then they would knock on Rosa’s door and thrust their hands under her nose and ask her what it meant and she would say, “It means you are a stupid little boy.” But she could not let the boys go without covering their palms with Mercurochrome. Afterward, she fed them cookies and they let the crumbs fall onto the floor for Rosa to vacuum after the street lights came on and their mothers called them all home.
One night Danny’s mother cried out for him, “Danilo, come home,” but he was too far to hear her and the boy with the blue shirt yelled back to her, “No—I don’t want to,” so that when Danny came home he was thrashed pretty good.
Sister Rosa’s door was always unlocked, and sometimes the old men came by when the sound of their wives’ voices bothered them. They would watch Rosa vacuum the crumbs off the floor and play cards at the kitchen table, happy for the noise that made it too loud for anyone to talk.
Manuelo El Brazo watched Sister Rosa’s hips sway left and right all the way down Roosevelt Street, and when the little one put his hand to her skirts he watched closely. Some said that the little one was Manuelo’s son and some said that the older boy was, but surely no one knew because Sister Rosa would never tell, and it didn’t matter anyway because she was a good mother and no one ever said a bad thing about Rosa.
Sister Rosa had a neon “Open” sign in her front window. Sometimes couples on dates, or couples who wanted to have babies, or groups of teenagers in homecoming gowns (strapless girls shivering in the late October air) would show up on her porch. They would not knock because if they did, Rosa would scold them and say, “Why are you knocking? Is it because your arms are broken or because you cannot read?” She never wanted to be interrupted because she was very busy raising three children who may or may be the children of El Brazo but even if they were they never belonged to him.
Sometimes Manuelo would come by to get his palm read because he was having a lousy day. Those times, Rosa would just slap it and say, “There. Now it cannot get any worse. It can only get better.” And then El Brazo would play his best game ever.
Sister Rosa was still young with thick black hair and hips that would have been too skinny if she had not given birth to children. She was petite, unflappable but always in motion, always straightening this boy’s collar and that girl’s skirts. She washed Father’s vestments at the convent next to the church with all the other washerwomen of the town, crammed in the small room, with Sister Felicitas bustling about and Sister Michaelinda giving orders and old Sister Teresita wheezing up the stairwell with the laundry basket. All the women chatted loudly in English and no one noticed how thick their accents were because they all had one.
But Sister Felicitas was the favorite of everyone and, behind her back and straight to her face, they called her Sister Sunshine. On the Feast of Santa Lucia, the little children followed her as they did in school. When they passed the cemetery they were not scared because it was daylight and Sister Sunshine was before them. In the cemetery were golden posts from the cribs of babies that had died and flowers that grew of their own accord, and as Sister Felicitas walked passed them, the drooping flowers straightened their stems and showed their faces while the clouds of mourning that never leave a graveyard hovered over them
But even Sister Sunshine could not stand against the machinations of the Devil himself, whose plans had been laid on Opening Day—the day that El Brazo broke his own record and Little Sammy pitched the splitter that won the game. But over the in the bullpen, Billy Vega got sick all over the bench because he had never drank beer before.
But those are the things that happen when the Devil sets his sights on you. Little things that do not seem like very much at the time. In retrospect, we should have known what would happen to poor Billy because he should not have looked at Peppina the way he did, with his eyes too full of beer. But that did not stop him from walking behind her during the procession so she could not see him looking at her pretty ankles. She had never worn high heels before.
But, as Sister Rosa said, it was no one’s fault. It could not be helped. When the Devil sets his sights upon you, there is nothing to do but pray.
So while Billy was looking at Peppina in a way that is doubly sinful because God was watching, the procession walked past the convent across from the Davis house where Ma Miller kept her post in a rocking chair on the porch. Ma Miller was a large woman with one boob because three years ago she had the other one cut off. She was Ma Miller but all her children were named Davis, and there were many of them, and their friends were many, and they were called “hillbillies” by those who thought that hillbillies were fair-haired people who never dressed up and whose father didn’t live with them.
Ma Miller didn’t know that the little tramps crawled beneath her, under the porch, through the basement window on the side of the house that did not face the convent. Their skinny bodies would slip through the window onto the washing machine, and if they were lucky the machine would be running and they could sit and wait in ready heat for one of the Davis boys (or one of their friends,) their thin legs dangling and their feet bare to show the red and pink toenails that they had painted on one another for this occasion.
Outside it was bright enough to see from here to there, but in the basement of the Davis home it was dark and damp, the perfect setting for little tramps to lose their virginity in that undignified way that the hillbillies do and at the age when it is expected of them.
The procession made its way up the indoor-outdoor carpeted steps of San Francisco and stopped at the altar. The communicants stood close together, singing and sweating and heaving. Eugene/Eugenio was crushed between the breasts of Tia Luisa and the protruding stomach of Jose Alonzo. He could not breathe, but the light of Carina called to him and he made his way to her. He asked her to marry him and she wanted to say “yes,” but La Modesta was too shy to answer, so she looked up at Eugene/Eugenio with her dark wet eyes and smiled at him sweetly and nodded her lovely head. But when she did this, a candle fell off the wreath on her head and the flame of it ignited a fire on the altar.
The flame spread and burned up all the vestments in the vestry, and all the missalettes in the pews went up in smoke. The congregants disbanded. All the women pulled their handkerchiefs from between their breasts, wiping their foreheads with one hand and pulling children away with another. The men all called for water and buckets. Father could not say mass and no one could remember the hymn anymore.
Outside, the Italians marched passed, singing loudly:
Chi non dimanda, chi non desia.
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
But no one understood what they were saying.
Maryann Lawrence is an essayist and short story writer in Ann Arbor, MI. Her works appear in Mothering, Literary Mama, Foliate Oak and Vine Leaves Literary Press.