Note: Surely Janice and Mel had mothers. Set a generation before the Xena Scrolls in Pre World War I New York City, here's my attempt at an uber story - as a friend of mine wrote, "in a world where the warlords wear tailored suits, the peasants live and work in places of steel and concrete and justice is as lost as it ever was in Xena and Gab's day."
The trolley lurched as it turned the corner and the young blond woman muttered to herself as she tightened her fingers around the worn leather strap and tried to keep her balance. There was little danger of falling for the streetcar was crowded with passengers heading home after a hard day's work. She stared at the broad back of a laborer standing in front of her and bemoaned her short stature. She would have to look for landmarks on the city blocks as they passed or miss her stop entirely.
Her body swayed with the motion of the car as it sped down the crowded avenue. I think I'm getting the hang of this, she thought to herself and smiled at the inadvertent pun. The nickel spent for the streetcar had been an indulgence but her feet throbbed and she longed to sit in her new flat, buttonhook in hand, and ease them out of their leather confines as soon as possible. She could swear that she had walked a hundred miles today and the city blocks from the settlement house to her flat had stretched out further than she could bear. It's worth the damned nickel, she thought as storefronts raced past her line of vision.
It seemed like she had spent her whole life planning and preparing for this day. The farm where she had grown up had seemed like a prison to her, the white pickets around the house constricting her world like iron bars. She had kept house for her widowed father, had cooked and cleaned, fed the livestock and done the chores with reluctance, inwardly fearing that to be competent at such things would doom her to a life where she would do little else. The house was clean and orderly, the meals were ready on time and she could mend a shirt if need be. But her jams would win no blue ribbons at the county fair and if she needed a new dress, there was always the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.
For she had different dreams, different skills. She would be a nurse one day, she was sure of it. For as long as she could remember she had felt most at ease not in a barnyard but at the bedsides of those who were hurting. Dr. Warner, the country practitioner, had remarked early on that she had the gift, just like her late mother and as she entered her teens he sometimes brought her with him when he made his rounds. She had watched and learned and soon became a familiar sight sitting beside him in his battered Model T.
When she was fourteen she had helped him operate on a farmhand, a young boy whose arm had been mangled by a thresher. She remembered it as if it were yesterday - the pungent smell of the ether, the sting of carbolic as she washed her hands, the pounding in her ears like thunder as the adrenaline raced through her body. She'd strained to hear the doctor's words, handed him the instruments, held her breath as she saw the layers of muscle and tissue laid bare under his scalpel. They had saved his arm, saved his life and she knew from that moment on her life had been changed too.
She had gone home and announced to her father that she would go to nursing school after graduation, that nothing would stand in her way. He had countered that no decent woman would do such work, that no daughter of his would earn a living bathing naked men and seeing sights no real lady should see. He forbade her to see Dr. Warner again and told her to get those foolish ideas out of her head and find a good husband to support her instead.
She was too uppity, too independent. She was healthy, strong, not bad looking. If she played her cards right, she would have her own babies to take care of instead of traipsing around the countryside taking care of strangers. There was no shame in being a farmer's wife. It had been good enough for her mother and it would be damn good enough for her.
She swallowed her angry words and respected his wishes. He was her father, it was his house. But silently she planned her escape. When she graduated, then she would leave. Take the train to the nearest city, get a job, save her money until she had enough for tuition. She could wait on tables in a restaurant, maybe learn to type...
She had finished school but before she could leave her father had fallen ill. Once again she worked by Dr Warner's side but there was little pleasure or satisfaction in it now as she saw her once strong and powerful father waste away until he weighed little more than a child. And when he died, she grieved that her freedom had come at such a price. Better to have angered him by running away than to have Death break his hold on her. She missed him, she wept for him but with what others saw as unseemly haste she had sold the farm and used the money for tuition at the nearest school of nursing. Tongues wagged but she cared little of their small town gossip. She would not be coming back.
At the county hospital she'd thrived on the hard work, the long hours. She lived in the dormitory with the other student nurses and reveled in the shared excitement. They had laughed together, studied together, made hot cocoa in a stolen Bunsen burner in gleeful defiance of the matron's iron rules. And every day they became more poised, more sure of themselves, more skilled.
Until even the rules and procedures of the small hospital itself seemed too limiting. She longed to test herself, to work beyond the haughty gaze of the doctors and to live outside the curfews and house rules of the matrons who guarded the private lives of the nurses like old country duennas. She read about the big city settlement houses, the visiting nurses who worked in the tenements among the immigrants who needed their help so desperately, strong and brave women who used their skills to make a difference in people's lives. She sent out her applications and waited until the first reply beckoned her to come join their ranks.
At graduation she had donned her starched cap and cuffs like a knight putting on his armor and felt for all the world like one of King Arthur's men bound for adventure in quest of the Holy Grail. And now she swayed to the rhythm of the trolley and laughed that Camelot had never sounded and smelled like this. But it was exciting nonetheless and she felt that this day would be the start of something wonderful.
For it all began here - new life, new job, new home, new friends - New York.
Belle pulled the blanket over her head, trying to close out the lingering light of day as it filtered through the curtains. She was weary, bone weary, and she shifted her weight on the thin mattress, confident that sooner or later she would match the curves of her body with the lumps and valleys it offered. Then maybe sleep would come.
So many patients, so little time. She had worked with children today, checking them for rickets, anemia, impetigo, while their anxious mothers stood by, nervous and wary. Some of the mothers were little more than children themselves, far away from the mothers and aunts who would have advised them on child rearing back home. Instead they listened to her words, heeded her warnings, glowed with pride when she complimented a child or tickled a baby. But the line had stretched on endlessly.
There was a pounding in the hall, cautious at first but then more insistent. She brought herself back from the edge of sleep and realized that someone was knocking on her door. She knew no one here but the landlady and her rent was paid well in advance. Surely it was a mistake. Shaking her head, she reached for her cotton dressing gown and shuffled across the room.
A young boy stood there, solemn faced, awed by the importance of his assignment. He grabbed her hand in his impatience. "You're the nurse from the settlement house, right? My Ma said to come get you. Anton got plastered and his wife's layin' on the floor bleedin' like hell. You gotta come. Please."
She grabbed her medical bag and followed him to the end of the hall and up a flight of stairs. It was easy to tell where he was leading her. The crowd standing in the doorway parted to let her through and there was a low rumble of comment as she knelt beside the injured woman.
She pursed her lips in anger as she scanned the unconscious girl's face and body. She was young, in her mid twenties and probably a attractive woman. But now her face was bruised and battered, her lip split and bleeding. Belle shook her head in disgust. All too familiar a story. She cursed the absent Anton under her breath and opened her bag. There was a jagged cut on the woman's chin where her head had struck either the floor or the table edge and there was blood on her chest, on her neck. She began to wipe the wound, trying to judge the extent of the woman's injuries.
Her back was to the doorway and she could sense rather than see the people behind her. As she worked she could feel a ripple of excitement, of surprise in the crowd that had gathered in the hallway and then she heard someone say, "Angel is coming." And then there was silence.
Moments later she heard the voice, low, velvety, a woman's voice. "Why don't you people go on home now? Show's over." Belle quickly glanced at her and then turned back to her patient. But that glance was impressive. The newcomer, the one they'd called Angel, was tall, dark haired, blue eyed and strikingly beautiful. She wore a red silken dressing gown and as she lounged against the doorjamb, she crossed her arms in front of her, holding a cigarette casually between her fingers. Her face was impassive, her demeanor authoritative and in seconds the watchers had receded back to their own apartments.
"Is she all right?" The voice was softer, kinder.
Before Belle could reply there was a movement in the next room and a burly middle aged man emerged. He was drunk, red faced and belligerent, seeking more challenge than he had found in his wife. "What the hell are you doing in my house? Get out." He switched to a Slavic language but the tone was the same.
Belle gave him less than a glance. The cut could probably use a stitch or two but was less serious than she had first thought. She reached for her bottle of antiseptic. She heard the swish, sensed his sudden movement and out of the corner of her eye, she caught the glint of metal as he stood behind her.
But now the tall woman stood behind her too. Her movements were quick, fluid, and with a dancer's grace, she turned on her heel, took his wrist in her hand and bent his arm behind his back. She held the knife now and Anton sputtered in surprise and anger to find himself helpless in her hands. As Belle bandaged the girl's face she heard the other speak, softly, calmly. "You'd better go for a walk, Anton, and sober up. You and I'll talk later."
Her work done, Belle turned once more. Anton stood a few feet away from the tall woman, shaking with fury, his fists clenched at his sides while the woman watched him, her eyes narrowed, her face calm, almost bored. He put his hand to his throat fearfully but there were only tiny drops of blood on his white shirt collar and a faint scratch on his throat, barely breaking the skin but stretching from ear to ear. "Gypsy bitch," he muttered and stumbled out of the room.
Belle's eyes widened as she realized what had gone on behind her. The woman snapped Anton's knife shut and the sound seemed to echo in the small kitchen. She dropped it into her pocket and puffed on the cigarette still dangling from her fingers.
"You must be the new roomer, the nurse from the settlement house." Her tone was friendly, conversational, as if they had just bumped into one another on the front stoop.
"Yes, my name's Isabelle Gabrioux. Please, call me Belle."
She nodded. "Serafina Tziganes. My friends call me Sina. Sofia, will she be all right?"
Belle got to her feet. The woman on the floor had begun to stir, her eyelids to flicker. "The bleeding's stopped but she might have a concussion. She shouldn't be left alone. I'll stay with her and keep her awake 'til we know for sure."
Sina nodded. "You can use the settee in my apartment. I was just about to leave for work anyway. Besides, Anton will probably come back in the morning for his razor and a clean shirt. We wouldn't want to have a scene."
Belle laughed. "If I were Anton, I wouldn't be in too big a hurry. He might want some clean clothes but I think he's already had one close shave tonight."
Sina smiled and there was a warmth and amusement there that seemed far removed from the woman who just minutes before had sent Anton into the street in fear. As the two of them helped Sofia downstairs, Belle considered the danger they had been in and marveled that she had felt no fear herself. Sina had been so confident, so matter of fact. Perhaps tonight she had made her first friend here in the city, perhaps her first enemy too.
One thing was perfectly clear. She wasn't in Kansas anymore.
"Sofia, talk to me. We're neighbors, we should get to know one another." Belle helped the young woman out of her stained shirtwaist and into the dressing gown that Sina had tossed on the settee. Sofia was slight and slender and Belle moved her body as easily as that of a little girl. Sina had been silent as she led them to her apartment and once inside, her only comment had been "There's a pot of coffee on the stove." Then she had disappeared into her bedroom, changed clothes and with a brief "good night" she left the apartment. Moments later there was the roar of an engine on the street below and then she was gone.
Belle watched as Sofia struggled to keep her eyes open. She wanted to keep her awake but it would be a few minutes until the girl could carry on a conversation. While she waited, Belle looked around Sina's apartment, curious to learn more about her new acquaintance. The room was neat and spare, with many of the same furnishings that had come with Belle's own flat. There were no pictures of friends or family, no keepsakes or momentoes anywhere in sight. The only flashes of color were a second hand oriental rug on the floor and the sofa pillows that she had used to prop up Sofia's head.
But there were books, scores of them - lined up on shelves, piled high on the floor, resting against the settee. And in a corner of the room stood an old, much used Victrola like the one she'd known back home and at least a dozen of the heavy discs that were replacing the cylinders of her childhood memory. Sina loved reading and music, that was obvious, but her home revealed little else about the woman. It was as if she spent time here but was not yet sure how long she would stay.
"What am I doing here? This is Angel's flat." Sofia was awake now and more alert. "Who are you?"
"My name is Belle and I live down the hall. I'm a nurse. We were afraid you might have a concussion so Sina said to let you rest here. She said you were a friend of hers."
Sofia tried to sit up but changed her mind as a wave of dizziness overcame her. She reached up and touched the bandage on her chin gingerly. "You do this for me? Thank you." She smiled and seemed to relax as she realized that she was safe here. "What about Anton? I don't remember..."
"Sina persuaded him that it was a fine night for a walk. I'm sure he won't be back 'til morning." She smiled as she saw relief flood the young woman's features.
Sofia laughed softly. "Angel can be very..."
"Persuasive?" Belle offered.
Sofia nodded. She fingered the oversized dressing gown. The sleeves hung down past her fingers and she rolled them back up her forearms. "This is hers too, yes? She is very kind for me. My first friend here in America." She sat up slowly, anxious to talk, grateful for the company. "Twice a week I come to iron the dresses she wears when she sings in the theater." She smiled, "Anton hates her but he lets me come because the money is good. But sometimes when she is home I don't even work at all. We just talk. I mean, I talk. Mostly she listens. She says it will make my English more better."
Belle stifled a smile. "Why do you call her Angel? One of the neighbors called her the same thing earlier tonight. But she told me her name was Serafina and that I could call her Sina." Belle could smell the coffee on the stove and rose to look for some cups.
"Serafina is her name when she sings on the stage because it is her name in the old country. It means angel in my language. But nobody calls her that to her face. It is more because she is like a ..what do you call...guardian angel. She takes care of us. Like with Anton." She struggled with the words but more than anything she seemed anxious for Belle to understand, to share her admiration. "She is very quiet, with many secrets. But still, I know. She doesn't talk to hardly nobody but she knows things and she can help people."
Belle poured the coffee and handed Sofia a cup. It was strong and good and it warmed them both. Belle settled into a dilapidated Morris chair next to the settee and tucked her feet under her legs. "You mean she lends them money? If she's rich, what is she doing living here?"
Sofia shook her head. "Angel's car is the only nice thing she got. No, not money. But sometimes she tells me to tell people where there is a job for somebody. And when the landlady has bad pains one time she drives her to the hospital. Sometimes big things, secret things. Let me tell you how I mean. One day I see a little girl on the steps behind. I talk with her and she says she cries because she is scared when her uncle...does things." Sofia looked away from Belle and her face colored suddenly behind the bruises. "Anton tells me to mind my own business but I am so mad I tell Angel." Sofia settled back against the pillows, enjoying the chance to tell her tale. "Her face gets all hard and scary, her eyes like ice. And next week later, I see the uncle and his hand is all in bandages. He broke his fingers in a door, he says." She nodded her head, relishing the opportunity to brag about her friend.
Belle sipped her coffee. Sofia was grateful to Sina, glad to have a friend and there was little else to occupy her youthful imagination. "You know, Sofia, I see people with broken fingers all the time. They catch them in doors, drawers, machinery. I'm sure it was just a coincidence. Sina never said she would punish the man, did she? It's a pretty big leap from telling somebody about a job to breaking a stranger's hand."
Sofia was firm in her admiration. "Yes but then there is Mrs. Murphy's little boy. He got hit by a truck and the man don't stop. Angel sees him in the window all the time and asks me why he never goes outside. I tell her he can't walk no more and is too heavy for his mother to pick up to carry. Pretty soon a man brings a wheelchair and when Mrs. Murphy says it is a mistake, the man says no, a lady takes care."
"Maybe it was the driver's wife. Maybe he felt so guilty he decided to do something about it and sent her so no one would spot him." Belle was tiring of the stories, so far fetched. Sofia was so hungry for a hero, so desperate to find comfort in a hard and cruel world.
"Mrs. Murphy wants to say thank you, so she gets little cloths - how do you say - scraps?- from the place she works and every night she makes a rag quilt to take to the wheelchair man." Sofia leaned forward, warming to her story. "She says, 'Give to that lady who buys the chair for my boy. Is tall pretty lady?' The wheelchair man says, 'Very pretty.' Mrs. Murphy and me, we figure out it is Angel."
Belle rubbed her eyelids with her fingertips. Now that Sofia seemed so full of energy, her own fatigue seemed to return. She drained her cup of the strong black coffee and leaned her head back in the chair. "Well, would you know it if you saw it here in Sina's flat? Have you ever even seen Mrs. Murphy's rag quilt?"
Sofia shook her head, reluctant to admit that she had not. Belle sighed. Sofia's fantasies were comforting now but someday the truth would be just another disillusionment for her. It was an unfair burden for Sina to bear, to carry the weight of so many hopes and dreams. "You know, Sofia, just because she stood up to Anton, that doesn't make her everybody's Guardian Angel. She knows you but the others are just strangers to her. She was probably just making conversation."
Sofia shrugged. She would not let go of her hero worship so easily. She pulled the dressing gown tight around her body as if to feel Sina's protective embrace in its very fiber. "I shouldn't be telling stories to strangers." She looked sheepish, as if she were embarrassed that others did not hold her idol in such high esteem. "But maybe you will not be a stranger for long. Maybe you will be a friend for Angel too. Then when you hear the stories you will begin to wonder. I know you don't believe now but soon you will see. She is very special, that one. Like you are special to help me too." She smiled her gratitude and then rested her head on the sofa pillows.
Belle whispered, "Get some rest." She shut the lights and leaned back into the softness of the chair. Soon she heard Sofia's quiet regular breathing and began to doze herself.
It seemed like only minutes later that she woke to the sounds of a new day. It was early, barely dawn and the sun's pale light began to seep into the room through the curtains. Belle could make out the form of Sofia as she slept peacefully on the settee. Sina 's bedroom door was shut and she could see a big black Buick parked at the curb.
Belle closed her eyes and savored the coming of the day. She could hear faint noises from the street below, a symphony of sounds. There was the tinkle of glass bottles as the milk wagon crept past, a melody that stopped now and then for deliveries. The iceman followed not far behind and the grating of his huge blocks of ice, the ka-chunk as his pincers cut into the sides of each block provided percussion. Behind it all there was the rhythmic tick tock of a clock somewhere in Sina's flat, a metronome steady and comforting in its consistency.
One by one her senses awoke. Now she could smell the bread baking in the bakery across the street. The yeasty smell of the loaves filled her awareness, made her mouth water for the taste of breakfast. For the first time since she had come to New York she felt truly warm and comfortable. It was almost as if the excitement of last night had left her stronger, invigorated, as if it had been a sort of initiation ritual. She had felt alone before, more than a little frightened of the new path she had chosen. Perhaps she had bitten off more than she could chew, as her father used to say.
But now at least, she felt safe and cozy, curled up in a comfortable chair in a new friend's apartment. But the autumn air was cool on her face and she glanced over to see that sometime during the night Sina had covered Sofia with a blanket. But she must have had to forage among her scant possessions for it, for Belle could smell the faint scent of cedar in the room. It brought back memories for her. Her mother's wedding dress had been tucked away in a huge cedar chest along with her own christening gown and other treasured pieces of linen. Sina must have had a chest or trunk like that to hold the extra sheets and blankets one kept for company and for those prized possessions too good for daily use. She looked around her once more and as the light grew brighter in the room she found that the cedar smell was coming from a colorful rag quilt with which Sina had covered her as she slept.
Surely there was more than one rag quilt in the city of New York but Belle looked at Sofia and wondered.
It was late afternoon, her favorite time of day. Sina sat at her window and watched the people in the street below her, listened as the rhythm of the street shifted gears as smoothly as the engine of her automobile. It was different from the rush of the morning. Then laborers hurried to work with their lunchpails swinging at their sides and pushcart vendors sold fruit, vegetables, second hand clothes and shouted out the nature of their wares above the din of the traffic. There was an urgency to the street then, a pulse that drove them all at the same breakneck speed.
But now the rush was over. The factory workers were home now and for a few hours, for that fleeting period between their ten hour workdays and their few precious hours of sleep, they could relax. The street was peaceful as finally free of the confines of their windowless shops and factories they spilled outside of their tenements and sat on their front stoops, smoking, talking, the young ones flirting with each other, the older ones swapping gossip, telling tales.
She would relax now too but her relaxation came before rather than after her labors. Soon she would be off to the theater to stand before the footlights and sing for the crowd but for now she could smoke her cigarette and listen to the Victrola while Caruso sang for her. She fingered the silver lighter that rested on the sill and wondered why it was so hard to give up such a foolish habit. She only smoked one a day now, savoring it when she should have given it up entirely, saving her guilty pleasure for this, her quiet time.
The music stopped and she sat in silence. The boy across the street was practicing his violin and she listened to him instead. She had marked his progress for weeks now. He was talented and already the melody was clear and pure as he worked at his lessons. Perhaps in a few months she would talk to the orchestra leader. Musicians were always on the move, perhaps there might be a job for an eager young violinist. She would slip a note under the boy's doorway, tell him where to go, who to talk to. It wouldn't pay that well but it was a start and she was sure the family could use the money. They must have sacrificed a great deal for even the used violin he played now.
He started to play Listz' "Hungarian Rhapsody" and she closed her eyes and listened as he struggled with the intricate melody. It reminded her of her childhood, of the old country, of the life she'd left behind her. She sang other songs now but once the gypsy melodies had nurtured her, had defined her and she could not remember life without them.
The gypsies had found her, a frightened child of five or six, the sole survivor of a Turk raid on a small Thracian village. Like a stray kitten they had picked her up and brought her along. They had called her Serafina, Little Angel, when they found she could not speak her true name. But it was a silence born of fear not of injury and for months afterward she could only use her voice to cry out in the night, trembling from dreams she could not recall when she awoke.
It was as if she had had no past. She would lie awake, trying desperately to recall the faces of her mother and father, wondering if there were sisters, brothers with the same dark hair and blue eyes. But in her mind there was only darkness and all she could remember were gypsy voices and gentle hands coaxing her from the bushes where she had hidden. She would weep sometimes, fearing that her parents were alive somewhere, searching for her, worried, and that somehow she had betrayed them by forgetting.
For years afterward whenever the gypsy band would come to a new town she would scan the crowd and look in their faces, hoping that someone would recognize her, an aunt or uncle, anyone, that they would call her name and pick her up in their arms, take her home where she belonged, where someone would love her. But no one had ever claimed her.
The gypsies had welcomed her and said she was one of them now. And she became used to her new life. They were always on the move, staying in a town or village only long enough to sell their goods, to entertain and then they were on the road again. Always new towns, new faces. Sometimes they were welcomed for the excitement and diversion they offered. Sometimes they were chased away by villagers who branded them lazy shiftless thieves and cheats.
But despite their kindness, she had always felt like an outsider among outsiders. She had always looked different, felt different. The other gypsy children were short, slender, swarthy, with flashing dark eyes and ready smiles. But she was always a head taller than the others, fair skinned, her eyes piercing and every shade of blue that the spectrum would allow. As the months passed she found her voice but had never spoken much. She grew strong and silent and chose to keep her thoughts to herself.
She was everyone's child and no one's child. She was welcome at everyone's campfire, had placed her bedroll under everyone's wagon, had eaten from everyone's stockpot but she ran as free and as wild as the dogs that followed the gypsy band from place to place. She was safe, she was cared for, she shared their pleasures and their troubles but always she stood a little apart.
And even as she had drawn away, into herself, there were those who loved and cared for her. She was generous and thoughtful, always ready with a helping hand. She was bright and had learned all the skills that made up the gypsy trades: mending, collecting herbs to sell, knife throwing, horsemanship, dancing, singing. Everything but telling fortunes. When the others had the mysteries explained to them, she had turned away, indifferent, almost hostile. It was as if the girl with no past was reluctant to know the future. The future, she reasoned, was what you made of it.
But there was an anger in her too. The sights and sounds of the massacre in the Thracian village were hidden deep beyond her awareness but the helpless little girl who had seen and heard had been marked by it. When there was danger, she reacted with an anger and a violence that was intense, focussed. She would lash out at those who would do harm and her actions were swift and effective. She was not cruel or hateful but rather it was a primal response that grew from a fierce determination to survive and to protect those she cared for. But there were many who feared her because of it and it became yet one more difference that set her apart.
Then in adolescence the gangling little girl had become a tall, slender woman and a graceful dancer and her voice had become low, melodic. So she became the charge of Viktor the violinist. He taught her the songs, the age old gypsy dances and soon the lonely widower loved her, doted on her. When she came of age, he asked her to marry him. And with hardly a second thought she said yes.
He was so much older than she but he was respected and well liked. There was no one to object but the young gypsy boys who had yearned for her themselves. And so she and Viktor were wed. Had she loved him then? With the wisdom of womanhood she looked back at the girl she had been and knew that she had loved him for loving her. And it had seemed like enough.
Finally as Viktor's wife she had a place where she belonged. He treated her like a porcelain doll she had seen in a store window once. He cooked for her, told her stories of places he had been, taught her to read and to write. Sometimes she would look up from her mending or from the pages of a book to find his eyes resting upon her. He would smile and she would wonder how long he had been sitting, staring.
Their lovemaking was infrequent, perfunctory, for Viktor's real passion was music. He loved to hear her sing and taught her to use her voice like he used the violin: when and how to make it low and caressing, when to make it whisper or shout with joy. Sometimes in the evening he would play just for her but he loved it best when they shared a song and his violin and her voice made a counterpoint of melody that even the music loving gypsies marveled at.
Then he had astounded her by declaring that her gift was too fine to waste on simple countryfolk. They left the gypsy camp and he had taken her to the big cities. They had gone to museums, libraries, the theater, the opera and she had taken in each new experience and hungered for more. It had been easy to make their way. They had worked in beergardens, music halls. He had played with the orchestra, she had sung.
But then cancer had eaten away at his body and she had sung to him and him alone, had tried to wrap him in her song to shield him from the pain. He had clung to her and sometimes she could not force the notes out for the tightness in her throat. But his pain was too great to be contained by her love alone and she had had to take him to a crowded charity ward. Even now the memory of the moans and cries of the other patients, the smells of sickness and death were enough to make her tense, anxious. It was not that she feared pain and death for herself. Rather she hated the helplessness, the knowing that no matter what, she could not ease his suffering.
Then he had passed away and left her alone again, barely out of her teens, to wander the cities of Europe with only her wits and the skills he and the gypsies had taught her to make her way. She had crossed Europe, from city to city, job to job, until finally she had come to America.
At Ellis Island the immigration man had asked her who she was, where she was from. She had laughed and shaken her head. Such a simple question for others, not for her. She had been given a name and an identity before, the frightened little girl with no yesterdays. She had smiled and told him Serafina Tziganes was her name. He had nodded, bored. He hadn't known it was the Slovak word for gypsy.
The boy had stopped his practicing now and she sat in the silence of her apartment. Then suddenly she was startled by the sound of footsteps in the corridor.
"Sina, have you got a minute? It's me."
She ground out her cigarette and rose to open the door. Belle stood in the hallway, her face bright and shining, bearing a covered plate like a religious offering. "I got a hankering for something sweet so I made an apple pie and it didn't come out too bad, for once. I took a piece to Sofia but there's plenty left so I figured we could share it. I know you have to go to work soon but what do you say? Still got that pot on the stove?"
And so over hot apple pie and strong European coffee, their friendship began. It was as if the food they ate reflected their own individual essence. Belle's pie was warm, comforting, as American as any food could be. It had a sweetness that was immediate, accessible, natural. It was common, in the best sense of the word, a fruit grown in farmland that could bring its nourishment anywhere, a food whose goodness was meant to be shared with others.
Sina's coffee, on the other hand, was exotic, dark and strong, ground from beans grown in faraway lands. It poured from the enamel pot so hot and steaming that one sensed the danger and held back. To enjoy it, to appreciate it, one had to wait, to approach it cautiously. The first sip was acrid, not to everyone's liking, but to those who would not turn it aside, who were drawn by its unique aroma, it was satisfying and comforting too. Its heat no longer a threat, it warmed you, gave a sense of well being, flooded the senses with excitement.
Sina poured the coffee into two heavy stoneware mugs and Belle cut the pie into two generous servings. In minutes they sat down in companionable silence, enjoying the food. The flavors complemented one another and it seemed like a simple repast that they shared but in truth, it was the beginning of a friendship that would last a lifetime.
Belle bent over the woman on the bed, sleeping now, and felt her pulse, weak but steady. She wiped the sweat from her own forehead with her sleeve and then thrust her hands into the pockets of her apron so that the short solid neighbor who stood at her elbow could not see them tremble with fatigue.
It was the neighbor who had called to her as she went on her rounds, who had summoned her upstairs. There was a woman in labor, a labor too hard that had come too soon and Belle had done what she could to save the child, to save the mother, to stop the bleeding, to make things right. The neighbor had shooed the children outside, had brought the basins of water, had found clean towels, had stood handmaiden to Belle's efforts, silent, her workworn hands strong and ready. Her language was different from Belle's and they had only their compassion and the job at hand to bond them together.
But now Belle turned from the bedside to the tiny bundle in the wicker basket. The child's heart and lungs had been able to sustain its life for only a few minutes and now she wrapped it in a piece of white cloth, tenderly as if it could feel her touch. The neighbor watched her and then looked away.
Too many births, each one harder than the last until one, likely the next one, would end it. Belle moved slowly, her movements heavy with sorrow for the death that had been and the one that she knew would come. She gathered her things, packed them in her bag and turned to thank the woman now sitting by the bedside of her friend. She and Belle had worked together for hours in silence but now the immigrant woman said softly, "Vaya con dios."
The husband sat on the front stoop and rose as he heard Belle's footsteps on the stairway. He was a big man, broad shouldered, rough looking but his voice was thick, soft as he held her hand and thanked her. But then he did not let go and his grasp was tighter, almost painful to her as he stood there on the sidewalk. He was a man who spoke little and never of his feelings but today was different. This was a situation beyond the scope of his strength and experience. He coughed, nervous, embarrassed, frightened. "I thought I would lose her. I don't know what to do. She can't go through this any more. I'll never touch her again if it means we can be together." He let go of her hand and looked away as he asked, "Do you think she will still love me if I do that, if I do that for her?"
Belle shifted her bag from one hand to another and took a deep breath. "Come inside a minute. We can talk."
Sina poured two glasses of wine and cut the loaf of bread still warm from the oven of the bakery next door. Belle had bought fresh grapes on her way home from work and there was a mild Italian cheese on the table, cool from the icebox, its rind as red as Sina's dressing gown. It had been several months since Belle had knocked on her door, pie in hand and their friendship had grown quickly from that point. Several times a week now they shared a light meal when Belle got home from work and before Sina left for the theater. Belle usually delighted in the variety of the cheeses and wines Sina offered, chattering about her day, choosing the music they would play on the Victrola as they ate. But tonight she was subdued, depressed.
Always Sina was the quiet one but now she filled the awkward silence with the softness of her voice. "I'm glad you decided to join me tonight. Sometimes the theater is so hectic, so noisy. It's good to sit here and relax. A glass of wine, some good music - it helps to ease your mind."
Belle's voice was distant, almost as if she were just trying to make conversation to fill the void. "Sina, do you know what "vaya con dios" means?"
The older woman nodded. "It's a blessing. It means "go with God" or "may God be with you."
"'May God be with you.' Like looking over your shoulder, huh?" Belle's tone was flat. "A blessing."
Sina sat back wordlessly, waiting.
Belle ran her finger around the edge of her wineglass, avoiding Sina's eyes. "I lost a child today. A newborn. I almost lost the mother too." She looked up and suddenly the words tumbled out. Sina sat silently, nodding, her face impassive.
"...and he was as big as your Buick but he sat there crying at his kitchen table. It's ignorance that kills them, plain ignorance. All they know are old wives' tales and superstitions." Belle fell silent, suddenly afraid that she had said too much.
Sina waited for a few moments and then said softly, "So you told him how it's possible to make love without making babies."
Belle rested her elbows on the table and winced to hear Sina's curt summary. She nodded. "What I told him, it's against the law to teach people those things. I could lose my job. I could go to jail." She spoke in a whisper, as if she were afraid someone would hear and the possibilities become real. "And if that weren't enough, I've always been taught that it's a sin too."
Sina leaned back in her chair and her blue eyes seemed to bore into Belle's and to understand the truth she had not spoken, the real doubt in her soul. "So do you regret what you've done? If you hadn't spoken out, if you'd gone back next year to find his wife dead, their children motherless, would that be easier for you?"
Belle shook her head. "No, people shouldn't suffer for their ignorance - not while others have the knowledge to ease that suffering. In my heart it felt like the right thing to do."
"But you broke the law of the land and the rules of your church and that's what bothers you then." Sina turned and her face was half in shadow so that Belle could not read the true expression there.
"No. What bothers me is that it was so damned easy to do, like it would be a sin or a crime not to. Back home everything was so plain, so clear cut - black and white, right and wrong. Always someone there willing and eager to tell you what was what. This is what you do, this is what you mustn't do. Period. But now I don't know. I did what I felt was right but I just don't know what to believe in anymore."
There was silence for a moment as Belle considered the words she had spoken and Sina weighed the ones she would speak. "I have lived in many countries, from the time I was a child until I came to America. And every one had different rules, different laws. The same with the churches. One church's rule is another one's sin."
She paused, unused to speaking of herself. "I grew up with the gypsies. We had no country, no courts, no churches. We carried those things within ourselves. I learned there's no better place to know right and wrong than in your own heart. To know that what you do is not for greed or for pride, to do things for the good of others, that cannot be a sin in God's eyes."
Belle looked out of the window for a moment. "How can you ever be sure that what you do is right, that it will really help?"
"You can't. But if you're a decent person and your heart is good, then you'd be a fool not to listen to what it has to say."
Belle smiled ruefully. "You know, when I left home and arrived in New York, I was pretty confident. People are people, I thought. How different can it be, farmers, city folk, immigrants. They get sick, they get hurt, maybe I can help. I got on the subway and I thought my biggest problem would be learning my way around, just finding my way home again."
Sina cut a piece of cheese. "Maybe you were wiser than you knew." And she offered it to Belle.
Belle took it from the knife's edge. "You know, maybe you're right." And then she smiled and lifted her glass to her companion. "Thank you. It helps to talk sometimes."
Sina shrugged. "Ah, I'm not done with you yet. You still need cheering up. My friends and I are having a little supper after the show tonight. Come join us."
"Sina, I can't. I have to go to the settlement house to go over the budget with Mel Pappas. He goes to school at Columbia and this is the only night he has free." She sipped her wine. "You'd like him. He teaches English to the immigrants. Says it's the only way they can protect themselves from people who take advantage of them, the only way they can ever make it on their own."
"Bring Mr. Pappas along. There is nothing that my friends like better than an audience. And I never met a student who could pass up a free meal."
But Mel Pappas was not the young unsophisticated college student that Sina expected. He entered the restaurant with Belle on his arm, smiling and at ease. He was in his late twenties or early thirties, more Sina 's age than Belle's. He was tall and broad shouldered, with dark curly hair and a carefully trimmed moustache. His suit was neat, clean but bought off the rack at Woolworth's, the cuffs frayed and worn. Sina suddenly thought how he reminded her of Ari when they'd first met. All energy and ambition, rough around the edges. But unlike Ari there was an earnestness, a quiet strength about this man she found intriguing. And the little crinkly lines at the corners of his eyes marked him as one who smiled easily and often.
Belle began to search for Sina 's table when a tall slim dark haired man grasped her arm and pointed to a table near the wall. "Well it's about time you two got here. Why spend your time with boring budgets when you could be dining with the elite of New York show business? Come. It's time that Sina's old friends and new friends should meet."
There were three of them already seated at the table and Sina smiled a welcome. "Otto, sit down. Let me introduce everyone. Belle Gabrioux, my new neighbor, and Mel Pappas, a teacher and student of..." she paused.
"Anthropology. Thank you for inviting me." He found himself staring and turned away to greet the others. My God, she's lovely, he thought.
The slim man sat down beside Sina. "And I am Otto Klaus, world famous magician, master of escape and sleight of hand. You've probably heard of me. I taught Houdini everything he knows but he's too jealous to give me any credit." He bowed and his eyes sparkled with mischief and good humor.
Sina gestured to a blond giant who sat against the wall, silent but smiling. He nodded a hello as Sina introduced him. "This is Sven Thorsen who's the strongman on the bill. His stage name is Hercules and when you see him bend a iron bar in half you'll know why. Sven is the only one here who talks less than I do."
Everyone laughed as Otto added, "When you can bend a iron bar in half you don't have to say much." Otto then introduced the last man at the table, a short balding man who drummed his fingers on the table with nervous energy. "And this is our old friend Simon Neagus. Simon doesn't perform in vaudeville at all. He is that most misunderstood of all show business people, an agent." Otto leaned over and patted Simon on the top of his head affectionately. "Simon is the one who makes sure we all have jobs so that we can make a living and pay him ten percent." Otto sat down and began to pour himself a cup of coffee. "And now that we all know one another, we can get down to business and celebrate Sina's birthday."
Belle was abashed. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize. I have no gift..."
"Not to worry." Otto reassured her. "Sina doesn't need any presents. She's a lucky woman. She already has everything she could want - beauty, wit, talent, a fancy car, charming and brilliant friends..." He stroked his moustache as Sina and Simon rolled their eyes. "But alas, the only thing she doesn't have is a birthday. So whenever we feel like a little celebration, whenever one of us is a little down in the dumps, we decide it is her birthday and we have a party for her. Sina, how old are you now?"
Sina stroked her chin, as if trying to remember. "Fifty two. But 1911 was a pretty rough year so I had quite a few birthdays last winter."
Belle laughed. "So who needs cheering up this birthday?"
Otto sighed. "My heart is broken. The incomparable Thelma, the love of my life, the woman who might have been the mother of my children, the best magician's helper in vaudeville, has run off with Francis the Human Pretzel, a no talent acrobat and contortionist. I am devastated. To think that she will never again pull a rabbit out of my hat, that I will never saw her in half again. How can I go on?" He clutched his hand to his chest dramatically.
"Well," said Simon, "we all know you're a charming fellow because you've told us so about a hundred times but maybe Francis was not without his charm either."
"More charming than me? Impossible!" He shot Sven a dirty look as the big man snorted.
"Well, perhaps she thought there might be more profit in the long run if she went with a contortionist rather than an escape artist." Simon bent his head toward Sina and said confidentially, "You know, I heard Francis was remarkable. He could move his hips so that..."
"Enough of Francis' questionable talents. It doesn't matter. The truth is that I've always been madly in love with Sina anyway." Otto leaned toward Mel, man to man. " I met Sina in Vienna many years ago. One look at those eyes and I offered her my hand."
Sina smiled. "It was holding my purse at the time. Otto was one of the best pickpockets in Austria-Hungary."
Otto shrugged. "Well, maybe not my hand but I offered her my heart."
She shook her head. "It wasn't his heart. But it was something else he holds near and dear." Sina looked at Belle and winked. Belle had never seen her so at ease. The easy banter, teasing, bawdy, clearly arose from affection and Belle was glad that her usually silent and solitary neighbor was not as alone in the world as she had thought.
Otto wagged his finger at Sina and whispered to Mel so that all the table could hear. "She treats me coldly but I know she's only playing hard to get. She wants me but she's just too shy to admit it."
Sina gave him an exaggerated skeptical look.
"See how she can't keep her eyes off me?" Otto leaned back in his chair, confident, a true man of the world.
Sina threw her napkin over his face. "That's not lust, Otto. If I don't watch you, you know you only get into trouble."
"Sina, you know perfectly well I'm a law abiding citizen now."
The waiter arrived with a huge platter of souvlaki and as Sven poured more coffee, Otto told the tale of his first meeting with Sina. She had held him by the wrist in the crowded railway station, the first person ever to have been quick enough to catch him as he tried to steal her purse. Instead of calling the police she had laughed at his chagrin and had talked him into trying show business. They had hit it off and soon she had helped him put an act together, lent him the money to buy props and costumes. In a matter of weeks he had found steady work in the music halls.
"It worked out just as Sina said. And why not? I am handsome, talented. Instead of dodging the police I now use my extraordinary skills to impress people and am respected and admired."
And Simon added, "Not to mention it's a great way to meet women."
"And it's a great way to meet women." Otto laughed. "And then we met Simon. He was a salesman then. Sina and I had to save him from a crowd of unsatisfied customers in Hamburg. He'd been trying to sell them bagels. It's amazing how much some people hate bagels."
Simon added, "...and the people who make them."
There was an uncomfortable pause. Belle had heard enough of the European pogroms to understand the import of Otto's remarks and for a moment she resented their flippancy. But then she saw Sina take Simon's hand, squeeze it lightly.
Simon said, "They told me that there were more opportunities in America for a salesman. That others countries wage war to pass the time but Americans like buying things - big things. Like Manhattan."
Sven piped in, "Alaska."
Mel added, "Louisiana."
"She told me it was not so violent as in Germany. There have never been any pogroms in America."
Otto could not resist the final joke. "And even when they do go to battle, they're polite about it. Haven't you ever heard of the Civil War?" Amid the laughter, Otto told them the rest - How all three had come to America...
Like tens of thousands of others, they had cast their fortunes to chance. America was opportunity, excitement, challenge. Whatever your past, whatever your secrets, your sins, it all faded away and you emerged new, born again when your feet trod the sidewalks of the new country. America was magic.
Otto and Sina had arrived in Hamburg only days before meeting Simon and were anxious to set sail. It hadn't taken them long to persuade him to join them. There was no reason for him to stay. He had no friends or family there and the mob had proved that another Jew was not welcome in their city.
He had little money and told them so. But they shared beer and sausages in a workman's cafe and before the day was through, Sina had sold her golden earrings, Simon had hocked his father's silver watch and Otto had not-so-miraculously won a pouchful of gold coins in a card game. They pooled their resources and found they had enough for three third class tickets in steerage, with twenty five dollars left.
With that and the clothes on their backs, they bid their old lives goodbye and set forth to America. They had been like schoolchildren on an outing at first but it was a long voyage with much time for contemplation and nagging apprehension. Steerage was hot and smelly, the bunks tiny and crowded together. It was noisy, day and night, with the sound of coughing, snoring, children wailing. And the storms in the Atlantic had tossed them all about like rag dolls. Most of the immigrants had never been on a ship before and were seasick. Steerage became hotter and smelled even worse. Otto swore that he would sooner picnic in hell than step on a ship, a boat or a canoe ever again.
And then they had landed in New York. Shoulder to shoulder with the others they had crowded together to see the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. For the first time since they had left Hamburg, there was silence, total silence. They craned their necks as the tall bronze statue loomed larger and larger until it seemed like her torch lit heaven itself and the sun stood poised as its light. So tall, so beautiful. Some wept in hope, some in fear.
And then for the first time they had heard the true American anthem as the steamship deckhands approached them and the ship prepared to land...
Get a move on. Make it snappy. Move your ass.
With America within reach, so close they could almost touch the skyline of the city, they were held back once more. On their way to the land of democracy where everyone was equal, they had found themselves segregated, not by rank or caste but by wealth. They had not been allowed to roam the ship among the first class passengers but had been kept apart. So it was now. They found themselves penned up like cattle while the well to do were taken off the ship to greet family and friends on the dock. Hours later when the baggage of those passengers had been taken off the ship, the newcomers had been loaded onto a ferry for the short hop to Ellis Island.
Get a move on. Make it snappy. Move your ass.
You could smell the fear. Here they would meet the authorities, the men in uniforms who would decide who could stay, who would be sent back. Men in uniforms had caused them grief and pain before - officials who had taxed them, stolen their land, soldiers who had waged wars and killed their kinsmen, policemen who had dragged them off to prisons to be seen no more. Men in uniforms, always men in uniforms.
And as the ferry approached the dock, the sight of the huge red brick building did little to comfort or reassure them. It looked like an old country palace or a prison, with eagles carved on the fašade and its imposing towers and parapets. They stumbled down the gangplank in single file and hurried ashore.
Get a move on. Make it snappy. Move your ass.
Under a huge canopy, a gauntlet of con men, pimps and labor contractors greeted them. Welcome to America. For a few coins I'll take care of your bags, change your currency to dollars, get you a wonderful job. For a few coins, I'll take care of you, I'll look out for you. Don't worry you can't speak the language, that you can't read or write. Just put your "X" here. Hey Pretty Lady, are you alone? You'll need protection here in America. I can take care of a pretty girl like you. The chorus rang in their ears while the Immigration men led them into the Great Hall.
Get a move on. Make it snappy. Move your ass.
Inside it looked even more like a jail, with iron railings making alleyways where thousands of immigrants shuffled along. The noise was overwhelming. It seemed like you could hear every language on God's earth spoken here and the room was so large, so vast that each syllable from every throat echoed in your ears.
Men in dark blue jackets walked up and down, eyeing them, checking their faces, their stance. Sometimes they stopped and wrote a letter in bright blue chalk on someone's back: H, G, L, X, E. They wondered, mystified, frightened not knowing that they had been hastily checked for medical problems and the letters marked defects that could end their journey now. H for heart trouble, G for goiter, L for a limp, X for those who were slow, retarded, E for eyes that could not see or could not see well enough.
Sina, Otto and Simon had stood together, each outwardly calm, each secretly glad for the others' presence. They were young and healthy and the men with the blue chalk passed them by. The hours passed and they moved slowly along the endless line, tired, anxious. And then the worst part of all. They had stood at a table, one by one, as the old doctor had beckoned them to come closer, to stand beside him as he reached into a drawer and pulled out an everyday buttonhook. They had almost laughed at the absurdity of it.
He barely looked at their faces. Wordlessly, quickly, he pulled their eyelids back and inside out with the buttonhook, just glancing into their eyes for any sight of trachoma and then he beckoned to the next one in line. Otto had been first. He had not known what to expect and had shouted and sworn in at least two languages when he found out. Simon had yelped too when his eyelid had been pulled back. Only Sina had been silent, too proud to react to the pain, to let anyone see her vulnerability. But it was the first time, the only time that Otto and Simon had ever seen the blue eyes shiny with tears. But even that pain had been worth it when they had been handed their identification cards and knew that they had passed the test.
But then there was a new fear. They heard from another in line that each person was supposed to have twenty five dollars in currency and they knew that that sum was the limit of all their monetary worth combined. Simon shook his head, heartbroken that they had come this far only to be turned away. Sina had whispered, "Don't worry, just follow my lead." She nodded to Otto and put two fingers to her lips in a signal. Then the two men watched as she unwrapped the shawl from around her shoulders and loosened the collar of her shirtwaist.
She held the bills in her hand and walked up to the immigration inspector. He counted the money and handed it back to her. He had already looked up at a thousand faces that day, all of them a blur. But then she smiled at him and he found himself staring into her blue eyes and smiling back. What a looker, he thought. He let his eyes wander as she bent over to ask a question about her identification card. The curves of her body were even more distracting than her face and he leaned forward, unaware that he had even done so. She whispered to him in a low husky voice: The others seem so rough she is afraid to speak but he seems so kind, so important. Surely he is the man in charge, maybe he can tell her how long before they will be allowed to go. She is so anxious to see America...
And meanwhile with an imperceptible motion she passed the cash on to Otto. The immigration inspector watched Sina walk away and barely looked up at Otto as he counted the money and briskly motioned for him to step back. Simon felt the tightness in his stomach and felt the sweat on his face. He hesitated when the man asked to see his cash. There had been no way, he had not been close enough, they had tried but they had failed him. He would be sent back a penniless deportee.
Sina was now out of sight and the immigration official's impatience had returned. "Hurry up," he'd said and Simon reached into his pocket, stalling for time. His breath had caught in his throat as his fingers touched paper and curled around the worn, wrinkled bills.
"I swear I never felt a thing." Simon declared to Belle as their story drew to a close.
"Of course not," said Otto. "I was the Prince of Thieves before I became the King of Vaudeville."
Six hours after entering America, they had been led down to the first floor. They hurried from the building and boarded the ferry to shore. They had been processed, prodded and had passed all the tests. But more than that, they had learned what to expect in the new country, they had learned the rules of the game:
Get a move on. Make it snappy. Move your ass.