by Peter Byrne
(Swans - September 9, 2013) It was a typical Italian gathering in spite of the view of a minaret from the balcony. Good humor whipped through the apartment like a breeze. Only in silent moments did rancor show on a face. It was quickly dispelled by remembering the evening was for staying on the surface, breathing fresh air and slipping away before the fug set in. There wasn't any huge alcoholic climax in the making. Dionysius lived elsewhere. But differences would go out the door intact, or stronger, after all the good cheer.
Maria wasn't cheerful tonight. Anger had wrestled her down, and she'd given up the fight, let herself be taken, enjoyed it.
John had heard her trilling behind him at the far end of the room. She was loudly thumping Umberto as she always did in his absence. When he was present she would shut up, either making apologies for him or staring his way with an edgy look.
There she was, in front of John now, about to perch on the edge of a chair.
"Hello John," she said, her mind well dug-in somewhere else.
"Ah, Maria, how's Umberto?"
John realized the question was a mistake, a hole in the dyke. But the social norms of these people demanded enquiries about their nearest and dearest, so to speak.
Maria clenched her teeth.
"In Roma, Roma, Roma."
"Oh," said John, "business?"
"Family business," said Maria. "That's a good one. Berto's in the family business."
John smiled in reply to her saw-edged laugh.
"I'm here, he's there." Her precision had a kick in it.
Bette, a young German, joined them. She'd already been in another three-way conversation with Maria about Umberto. Bette's eyes were still wide with the thrill of all that wifely abuse. Now Bette was ready for more.
"It's a trying situation," she summed up like a judge, in her best English.
"A widow, a war widow," said Maria. "What's so good about that?"
That war again, thought Bette, proud that she was one of those Germans who accepted their responsibilities for past misdeeds of the nation.
"You know," said Maria, "they get double pensions."
John nodded sympathetically. They could have half a dozen pensions, provided he was left out of it.
"And they still keep complaining."
John nodded with more sympathy. They could be cut off without a penny for all he cared.
"The war women?" asked Bette.
"His mother," said Maria, peeved with Bette and everyone. "I was the dumb Sardinian he brought home. She would tell me how much detergent to add. She has a special glass to measure it in. If you don't use that glass, then forget it. The dirt won't decamp or the electricity will pack up. You had to fill her souvenir glass from that Milan brewery or wear dirty clothes."
"Is Berto from Milan?" asked John. He thought it was a neutral question.
"Berto's supposed to be living here now. But he's always in Rome. When he took a job there she moved down from Milan to help and tell us about being a war widow."
Maria's gestures cut the Italian peninsula up into slices, each to be discarded.
"So many regions!" said Bette.
Maria looked at her blankly.
"Of course she brought the Milan measuring glass with her when she moved to Rome. She'd heard the Romans had washing machines. Not like in Sardinia where she thought they beat clothes with stones in a stream."
"We have north and south," said Bette. "But it's not the same."
"I suppose that if you have a north, you also have a south," said John. "They kinda go together, like east and west, though Chicago has no east side."
He felt Bette deserved to be knotted up in English. Her blandness kept him from breathing. Maria was something else. She charged astride her gross self. You could only retreat.
John, smiling, did step back several inches. Maria took it as a reminder that she ought to be circulating and spreading her message. She bustled away.
Bette and John, standing alone together now, went silent. They missed the stimulus of Maria's self-concern. John finally spoke.
"It's because of Lake Michigan."
Bette looked clueless but conscientious. Then she lit up.
"One of the five Great Lakes. Erie, Huron..."
John dived into Lake Superior.
"You see, west of State Street the west side street-numbers begin. East of State the east side street-numbers begin. But hardly, because Lake Michigan is there. You know, water."
"And Ontario," said Bette.
"Good," said John, looking nervous. "That's all five, a baker's dozen."
"But why," asked Bette, "State Street is there?"
"Where it is" said Bette, "in the way of the east side."
"There is no east side."
"Not logical," said Bette. "State Street should have been put in its proper place in the middle between east and west."
"Don't you mean midway between west and Lake Michigan?"
Bette thought a moment and then said,
"Well," said John, lowering his voice, "I suppose I'll have to tell you. It was that son of bitch Streeter State. Sorry about the language, but we're dealing here with a dirty little American secret."
Bette's wide-awake eyes woke up some more.
"You know those billionaires who throw trillions of dollars around?"
Bette must have knew them well. She nodded.
"Well, the old miser Streeter -- he was a skinflint too -- decided he wanted the balmy lake breezes brought close up to the street he'd named after himself. Follow me?"
"Yes," said Bette, "but what about the east side?"
"Wiped it out," said John. "A watery grave for thousands."
"Democracy they call that?"
"Worse still," said John, "a lot of stray dogs went under that didn't even have the vote."
While Bette chewed over the Chicago disaster, they heard Maria.
"Hands off my mother!" she was telling someone. "I ask you, should a grown man with one heart attack under his belt and a bald spot be saying that to his wife?"
"Is Berto really so attached to his mother?" asked Bette.
"In a word, yes," said John. "But he assured me she is quite sick."
"Maria told me the old woman was a hypochondriac, one of those attention seekers."
"That may be," said John. "But such people can fall ill at times. They die too."
John felt himself becoming measured and fair. It was the effect Bette had, and it worried him.
"We have families in Germany also," she said. "Parents, all that."
John perked up as if surprised at the news.
"You even had Freud next door," he said.
"But we don't go on about them all the time," she said.
John shook his head in agreement. But Bette wasn't finished yet.
"I read in the paper that Italians have the lowest birth rate in the world," she said.
"True," said John. "They have all those memories and words, but no kids." He started a list, "madonnas, bambinis, Holy Fathers, dolorous mothers...."
Bette looked alarmed. She'd strained to be nonjudgmental and avoid national stereotypes.
"It's like having a great pizza menu -- margherita, quattro-stagioni, marinara," John went on happily, "and no pizza."
Maria was back in front of them with a fresh accusation.
"And despite all that soap business, she never taught him to wash himself properly. He may have had the cleanest socks in Milan, but he's always dirty between his toes."
Before Bette and John had come to terms with her words, Maria was gone again.
"It's like those wonderful fish recipes they tell you about in Naples," said John.
"The stockings and toes?" asked Bette.
"The birth rate," said John -- couldn't Germans follow a line of thought? "Just words. No kids, no fish, or else brought in from farms or frozen from the ends of the earth."
"I see," said Bette, at sea.
Maria was called to the phone. She caught her foot in a rug. She shouted to the hostess that she'd given the number to Berto. Was that all right? She gripped the phone like a stair railing. She listened. She gave a gurgle. The hostess supported her from behind and eased the phone back on the cradle. Maria could still speak.
"It's Mamma, povera Mamma. Gone. How good for Berto that he could have been there at the end."
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