by Patricia Walkow
“What’s this?” Raven-haired Assunta pointed to a container on the counter of the store she and her sister owned. About the size of a large shoebox, it was made of yellow metal and painted with a floral spray of pink roses.
“I found it in the back of the storeroom,” her older sister, Mary, replied.
Assunta turned the palms of her hands toward the ceiling. “How come I’ve never seen this?”
“Come faccio a saperlo? I was cleaning out the shelves, and way in the back, behind rolls of butcher paper, there it was. How would I know why you never noticed it? Neither of us did.”
Assunta watched her sister pat the black netting holding her medium-brown chignon off her neck, thinking how Mary checked her French knot several times a day to be sure it was still in place. Mary’s Hattie Carnegie cluster-shaped silver earrings bore Aurora Borealis crystals that changed colors based on the surroundings and lit up her face. Assunta admired the way she looked so polished, so refined, whether at work or elsewhere. Mary dressed up every day,
While Mary smoothed the skirt of her crisp white apron and checked its pocket for her lace-edged linen handkerchief, Assunta suggested they open the box.
“Not now,” Mary responded, crinkling her nose. “The box looks like it has been here for years. Customers will arrive in a few minutes. You should get ready. We can wait a little more, don’t you think? Besides, I already tried to open it. It’s rusted shut. Let’s do it later.”
Assunta slipped a gray, starched bib apron over her head and tied the skirt around her waist with a neat bow. She was a striking woman and whatever she wore complemented her luxurious hair. She didn’t know Mary admired her for her beauty as much as she admired Mary for her elegance. Today, Assunta had used decorative combs to pull her hair back from her face, accentuating her cheeks and eyes. She fingered her gold love-knot stud earrings to be sure the act of donning the apron didn’t dislodge them and checked the security chain on her gold watch. An onyx and gold ring rested at the base of her right ring finger.
After confirming her jewelry was secure, she glanced at the pretty yellow box. It was colorful and feminine. Any box or container she had ever seen in the shop was strictly utilitarian and made of dark wood. This one was different. Almost playful.
She caught Mary’s eye. “Come on. Let’s open it now.”
“Later. It’s time to open the store. And why don’t you wear a white apron, like mine? Yours looks drab.”
“The white ones look like butchers’ aprons.”
“This is a butcher shop,” Mary laughed through her perfectly-applied lipstick.
Just then, a lone figure in a tailored black cashmere coat and fedora dominated the doorway. The tip of his etched silver-topped cane tapped the store’s black and white hexagonal tile floor. Assunta slid the yellow box to the back of a shelf under the counter until she and Mary could open it.
“Buongiorno, Mr. Contrero. How can I help you?” Mary asked.
“Buongiorno, donne adorabili. I’ll take a nice pork loin—enough for four people, with a little left over for me as a snack.”
He was one of their favorite patrons and they always beamed at him when he called them “lovely ladies.” Nor was it hyperbole. They were comely still-young women: Assunta in her late twenties; Mary in her mid-thirties.
Mr. Contrero liked to cook for his friends when he wasn’t singing in a grand opera house somewhere in Europe. But since World War II was raging, his international performances had been canceled. Global conflict or not, he liked to entertain and always purchased his roasts and chops at Empire Pork.
During the war, many staples—including meat and cheese—were rationed, and being a world-famous opera star didn’t entitle him to more than any other adult. No matter how much money he had, he was limited to a certain amount of meat per ration book. Once he had purchased that quota, he couldn’t get any more until he was eligible to receive his next book. At least, officially.
Mary selected a roast and showed it to him. He nodded in approval. After weighing it, she cut the appropriate number of red stamps from Mr. Contrero’s ration book and piled them next to the cash register. When she told him the cost, he pulled cash from his butter-soft lambskin wallet and topped the bills with two crisp tickets to the New York Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming performance of l Barbiere di Siviglia. First tier. Great view of the stage.
“Grazie,” Mary nodded.
Assunta saw the stamps Mary had taken from Mr. Contrero, squeezed behind her to the register, and returned enough of them to him so he could buy another twelve ounces of pork at a later date.
That was illegal.
He accepted them with a tilt of his head. “Stop backstage after the performance,” he invited. He took his package and bid them “Arriverderci” while tipping his hat, as gentlemen did.
“Arriverderci” the young women responded in unison.
When the opera star was barely out the door, Mary reproached her sister. “You’re going to get in trouble again,” she scolded, shaking her hand in Italian fashion, her thumb, index, and middle fingers pinched together. “We don’t need this.”
Assunta waved off Mary’s comment and gesture. She had already been arrested once for dealing on the black market to get a greater supply of pork, but she considered her apprehension just a formality. Given the choice of paying a $500 fine or spending overnight behind bars, she chose jail.
The night of her incarceration, she had dinner in an interrogation room with the precinct captain, who lived in her neighborhood and often purchased pork at her store. He released her the next morning with an agreement that she’d supply him with any pork product he wanted once a week for three months, supply permitting.
* * *
The morning passed quickly with a steady flow of shoppers saying hello and making their purchases. They ordered chops, cutlets, pig’s feet, fresh ham, and sausage. Everyone paid with cash and the sisters cut the required coupons from the buyers’ ration books.
Empire Pork was the best specialty butcher on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. After their parents died, the sisters inherited the business and it provided a good living for them. Next door was Veniero’s, a popular Italian pastry shop. When someone stopped for a taste of cannoli or flaky sphogliatelle, they often visited next door at the pork store, and vice versa.
It was a symbiotic relationship. Pastry and pork.
* * *
In the past few weeks, Assunta had sighed from time to time during the workday.
“Cos’è?” Mary asked her a few times,
“Nothing’s wrong,” Assunta always responded. But her smile was wan.
“Tell me,” Mary prodded, and eventually Assunta told her.
“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in this store,” she’d say, in one form or another. “I want a home where I can have a lawn, a tree, and a big house. Something away from an apron that comes down to my ankles. Something away from pork.”
Newly-married, Mary lived a few blocks from the shop and seemed content with her life while Assunta lived in an apartment above Veniero’s. Both sisters were embedded in the Italian-American neighborhood which was an enclave of eight square blocks filled with hard-working immigrants and their offspring. They had friends, acquaintances, and community. They enjoyed art, music, and a thriving business.
But it wasn’t what Assunta wanted.
* * *
The delicately-painted floral box rested on the shelf under the counter while the two sisters tended to their visitors through the busy morning and into the afternoon. Finally, during the midday lull, Assunta pulled the mysterious box from the shelf and placed it on the counter, in the light. Since it was corroded shut, Mary pried a knife under the lid, around the entire perimeter, and they watched the rust particles drop like soot. Together, they tugged off the lid.
With their mouths open, they gawked at more money than they had ever seen: stacks and stacks of bills. They each counted some. In all, it was $18,000—a small fortune. And there was a note from their father, written in his native language and in his fine, meticulous hand.
To My Girls:
By the time you find this box, I hope you have kept the store going. But it is not the life I envisioned for you.
I had to work as a butcher out of necessity. I had nothing when I arrived in this country…first to California where I found a little gold, and then to New York working as a laborer and butcher apprentice. Your mother cleaned the halls in the apartment building and worked in the store, too. She worked just as hard as I did. We used almost every penny we owned to start Empire Pork. She never lived long enough to see the store truly flourish or enjoy watching you grow up. But I did, and want to make your lives a little easier.
Over the years I stored as much money as I could in this box. I didn’t use a bank. After the stock market crash in 1929, I couldn’t trust them.
This yellow box is special. Your mother brought it over from Italy when she was just a girl. Keep it safe. Use the money wisely, my girls, and always be good to each other.
I love you both,
Mary and Assunta stared at one another, speechless. Mary pulled her handkerchief from her pocket to dab at her nose and the corners of her eyes. “Oh, Papa,” she whispered.
After a long, silent moment, Assunta gasped through tears, “We can sell the store!” She clutched the sides of her apron, drew them away from her like Cinderella wearing a ballgown and dancing with Prince Charming. The lawn of her potential house was getting greener. The flowers in her imagined garden were releasing their perfumes.
“Fare silenzio, Assunta.” Mary laughed.
“Settle down? You’re kidding, aren’t you? Do you know you can buy my share and keep the whole damn store?” Assunta added, still dancing. The make-believe white picket fence around her new house sparkled in the sun.
“Don’t you think you should find a husband, first? Who knows how many men will be available after the war?”
Assunta froze in mid-twirl. “A husband? An actual husband?” she said, only louder. She leaned against one of the display cases. “I hadn’t considered that.”
She returned to her position behind the counter where she and Mary closed the box together, slipped it onto the shelf again, and prepared to serve their afternoon clientele. But for the remainder of the day, Assunta felt warmth emanating from the box and wondered if it shimmered in golden heat waves in its hiding place. Her mind inhaled the scent of spring-yellow daffodils and lavender lilacs in her garden. She hung lacy white curtains in her fantasy house and painted her walls the same soft yellow as the metal box. When she peeked at it, she wondered if her mother had stored fancy hair combs in it, or handkerchiefs, or scarves, or ribbons.
Wrapping portions of pork for customers, she imagined her wedding day: she’d wear a regal, sumptuous satin gown, ivory-toned with a long train. They’d be a church full of people and a dazzling reception. Flowers everywhere.
The only thing she couldn’t picture was a groom.
At 5 p.m., they closed the shop and cleaned the counters, washed any knives that had not already been cleaned, rearranged the meat neatly in the refrigerated display cases, and swept the floor. Then they removed their aprons and placed them in a laundry hamper. Tomorrow would be a new day, and that day would start with fresh aprons.
Mary donned her coat and grabbed her purse.
“Wait, Mary, don’t go yet,” Assunta pleaded. “Do you remember when you said I should find a husband before selling the store…if we sell the store?”
“What about it?” Mary opened a gold-toned compact mirror and freshened her lipstick.
Assunta knew she sometimes astounded Mary with wild daydreams and grand schemes. “Do you think the police captain is married?”
Mary snapped her head toward her sister. “Probably. He’s in his forties, at least.”
“What about Mr. Contrero?”
Mary rolled her eyes. “Sei serio?”
“No…I’m just kidding. Maybe. But, what do you think about that lawyer who comes in here with his mother? You know—Alessandro. The bachelor.”
“You barely know him.”
Assunta shrugged. “I can change that. Why not let me have both opera tickets? I’ll ask him if he wants to go. He’ll probably stop in tomorrow or the next day.”
“Isn’t he supposed to do the asking?”
“I’m not going to wait around for him to ask me out. I’ll take the lead.”
Mary swung her head from side to side. “Papa always said you could be trouble.”
Assunta didn’t respond. Or care. Instead, she returned the box to the recesses of the storeroom before joining Mary in the front of the store.
Mary was pulling on her gray leather gloves. “Tomorrow one of us should deposit the cash into our bank account.” They had opened a store account after their father died. “We’ll probably have to deal with the bank manager for such a large amount.”
“Maybe we should deposit it in smaller chunks, over a few months,” Assunta offered.
Mary nodded her head in agreement. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”
“And to think Papa died before he told us about the box,” Assunta mused.
“At least we found it. What would have happened if someone else did?”
“I can’t even think of that,” Assunta responded. “And it was Mama’s box.”
The sisters locked the store and hugged each other goodnight. It was a longer embrace than normal. As they separated, Assunta gave the door an extra-hard tug, to be sure it was secure.
Mary walked toward her apartment, about fifteen minutes away.
Assunta pulled open the heavy door to her building, just a few steps from the shop. The hall was dim and smelled of whatever anyone was cooking for supper in the building’s six apartments that night. It was an olfactory ratatouille with Italian undertones. During her climb up two steep flights of worn limestone stairs, the dark tan walls offered insufficient illumination, but she swam in her sunny, illusory future life.
By the time she turned the key in her apartment’s door lock, she had planted a garden around her imaginary house. A honeysuckle vine climbed up a gazebo. Purple crocus bloomed and yellow tulips joined the daffodils lining her picket fence. Semi-sheer curtains filtered bright light onto the parquet wood floor of her dream house. She saw herself sewing buttons onto her husband’s shirt, waiting for him to come home from work. In her reverie, the floral-painted yellow box, empty of its cash and Papa’s letter, held a vase with a rose and a photo of her parents. It was placed on the mantle above the fireplace in her large living room, far from the city.
She returned to reality and looked around her apartment…the railroad rooms that flowed one into the other…the noisy street…outdoor light available through only four windows, no garden…no picket fence.
Assunta positioned a thick disk on the Victrola record player. With a glass of soda water in her hand, she sank into the easy chair near the two front windows of her flat and ignored the street sounds. It was getting dark, and, outside, the vertical neon Veniero’s sign cast a red reflection on her wall. But she was lost in the poignancy of La Bohème and had vanished into the promise something as mundane as a rusted-shut yellow box might offer.
As the evening grew darker, and despite the dreariness of her surroundings, a slow smile spread across her face. Tomorrow…Alessandro.
© 2021 Patricia Walkow All rights reserved.
Previously published as an e-story on Amazon, via KDP, March 2021. ASIN: B09121FXVG