Central Park

James Vescovi

James Vescovi

Off the boat she trudged, a tall woman in a strange land married to a strange man, who'd returned to the old country in 1925 to find a wife—her. He had red hair, an overbite that made her frown when he ate apples, and a wandering eye—not a rare oddity in Italy's isolated mountain villages, where the gene pool needed refreshing.
He brought her to a tenement on East 61st Street, told her to unpack her trunk, left her alone to discover the marvels of America, and went out to the bar he owned on Lexington Avenue.
She went to the faucet and twisted the tap: running water gushed into a deep enamel sink.
To her left was a gas stove. She should feel lucky; he'd told her that most American stoves burned coal and; as a child in Italy, her peasant family cooked with wood.
An icebox squatted in a corner—to be replaced when they had money to buy a Frigidaire—soon, her husband said. He'd found her a job cleaning offices at night. After their first child came, she'd quit.
Behind her was the bath tub, for which he apologized because some apartments in the tenement had a full bathroom.
She stared out into a dusky airshaft. She thought, What is this existence where a woman trades family, clean air, and scent of flax for modern gadgets and crowds?
An hour later, she'd finished unpacking and waited in the bedroom, watching traffic pour off the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge under snow flurries.
A key turned in the lock. She hurried to the front door, but it opened before she could reach it. Her husband entered with a white box tied with string.
"Tonight, my sisters and their families will come to meet you," he said, smiling. "You'll serve this cake with coffee."
He hung up his coat in the bedroom. He opened the armoire where she'd hung her clothes, then closed the doors softly and reappeared in the kitchen.
"Let me give you the run down on this building.
"Sit," he added, pointing to a round table.
"One flight below us on the third floor is Toton. He's a drunk, but harmless. If you find him passed out in the hallway, step over him.
"Hannah Makevich, on the first floor, keeps her door open to see who enters the building. She's a spider who'll draw you into her apartment, which is filthy. Smile and pass by quickly.
"The Swede, Anderssen—he works at night at the post office. On warm days, he sunbathes on the roof, sometimes with his cazzo showing. If we have daughters, keep them away—maybe sons, too.
"Finally, Gelsomina—directly above us. She's a widow, from a village not far from yours. If you don't knock on her door today, she'll knock at yours tomorrow."
He kissed her and went out to the bar, where a liquor delivery was arriving. She rattled around her new home, hesitant to visit this Gelsomina.
The following day, she descended the staircase to visit the local shops. Sun poured down through a skylight.
Outside, a woman sat on the stoop, whose handrails ended in sharp-beaked gryphons.
She stood up and smiled. Her hair covered her head like a sea shell.
"Are you Gelsomina?" asked the young wife.
"Yes. Let's walk."
The two strolled towards Second Avenue. A block later, under the Third Avenue elevated, the new wife felt the need to duck when a train roared by overhead. They passed fancy townhomes near Park Avenue.
Gelsomina whispered, "The bankers live here."
They entered Central Park.
"My children played here," said Gelsomina, pointing to a playground. "The sprinkler is turned on Memorial Day. The trees are bare now, but in summer the benches over there provide shade. Get here early. And the vendors—don't eat the pretzels; rats nibble on them where they are stored at night.
They observed nannies with large prams and immigrant mothers with modest ones and moved on.
"This way," Gelsomina said, steering the wife down a flight of steps.
"I hear music," she said.
"That is the giostra. In English, ‘carousel'," said the widow.
"My father let me ride one in Bologna once."
Gelsomina took the new wife's arm. "Now, I want to show you something you may need."
They turned down a winding path and after a brief walk stood before an outcrop of black rock forty feet high. The silica within it reflected the sunlight like slivers of diamond.
"That's what is called Manhattan schist," said the older woman. "It allows the skyscrapers to stand up tall. Place your hand on it."
"It's warm."
"Even in winter it gives heat." Gelsomina took a deep breath. "Now we will walk backwards in this direction"—she pointed—"across the grass."
"Yes, backwards. Don't worry, we'll hold each other so we don't fall. Keep your eyes on the schist."
They took one careful step at a time. A grin spread across the new wife's broad face—her first since boarding the ship in Genoa.
"Watch the rock take shape. Tell me what you see," said Gelsomina
The outcropping was jagged and peaked on top.
"How will I know?" asked the wife.
"Because you'll immediately stop," Gelsomina replied, laughing, "and the sorrow you feel at leaving your people won't hurt as much."
A few more steps and the wife cried, "Madonna!"
"You see it?" said Gelsomina
"I do! It's Mount Cervillino!"
Gelsomina nodded. "Forty villages wake up to that mountain. Even when its hidden by clouds, we strain our eyes to see it. When we leave home and come back, it's the first thing that we look for. Come here, when you feel homesick."
On the slow walk home, Gelsomina added, "Well, perhaps one day, you won't need that rock anymore. You will be American."
"Did you come here often?" asked the new wife.
"Me?" asked Gelsomina. "I have never stopped coming."

Central Park was selected as part of MSU Library Short Edition's call for submissions on the theme of "Home," in coordination with the MSU Broad Art Museum's exhibition "Where We Dwell."

James Vescovi's work has appeared in The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, The Georgetown Review, and Calliope. He is coauthor of The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy.

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