Thursday, May 26, 2005


It was a very nice morning on the seven hundred block of Maple Avenue. The sun had dried up all the inevitable grime in the street, reducing it to a mere memory of the winter that had slogged on far too long. The blossoms were just reaching their point of shaking off the trees, so that when breezes came through, lovely light colored petals rained down on people, getting stuck in their hair, on their spring cardigans, and—if they were patient enough to stand still with their heads pointed toward the sky—in their eyelashes.

None of these things proved any consolation to Alphonse Manfredi, who sat frumpily on his front stoop tying his shoelaces with such ferocity one would think he was preparing to embark on a whitewater-rafting excursion. Alphonse was not a rich man. On the contrary, he had very little surplus money, a product not of his financial irresponsibility, but of the fact that he worked only enough to provide for himself, his wife, and their two daughters. The house, far too large for all of them, had likely been left to him by some relative, or had been cheap because of a murder committed there in the past, something to make it possible for him to afford it. It was comprised of four stories full of narrow rooms, many of which were painted a light celery color. To open up the light, his wife had said. Whatever that meant.

His older daughter, Rhonda, aged eight, was tapping on the front window. In order to be in this position, this close to the window, it meant she would have to be standing with her feet on the back couch cushion, an activity that she was expressly forbidden to do. It wasn’t that the couch was particularly nice, Alphonse explained one evening to Rhonda, then aged seven, who was sitting on an old ottoman. The ottoman’s golden tassels shook as she kicked her feet and listened to him. Actually, the couch wasn’t nice at all. But, as Alphonse had gently but definitely suggested, climbing all over the furniture really wasn’t the best of habits one could fall into. After she had tapped ceaselessly on the window for a few seconds, Alphonse turned around and snapped his fingers sharply. Rhonda’s head quickly darted away, trailing giggles behind, and leaving a circle of greasy little fingerprints on the glass.

His younger daughter Elena stepped onto the stoop. She was six and had a mouthful of jagged teeth baby teeth and more often than not a pocketful of gravel and “sorry, please play again” bottle caps picked up off the streets. She herself wasn’t permitted to have soft drinks very frequently. This morning she was wearing a pair of navy nylon shorts that swished as she walked, alerting everyone to her presence long before she’d arrived like a formal announcement preceding a very disinterested new debutante. She was also swinging her mother’s black dustpan wildly by the leather string tied around its handle.

“Can I come with you?” Elena inquired as Alphonse finished his last double knot.

He coughed at a mouthful of dust flung his way, and ducked aside from the dustpan’s sharp edge. “Don’t do that,” he said, making a move to stop her, then backing away as the swinging dustpan chaotically began to slow down.

“So can I?”

In the house, Rhonda was back up on the couch, watching them intently. This time, she was armed with a red, white, and blue Popsicle. Popsicles are rarely an appropriate breakfast item, and furthermore, it was much too early in the year for Popsicle weather.

“No,” said Alphonse, bracing his hands on his knees and standing up. “Go back inside and play nice for just a little while longer. I’m going to go get your mom and bring her back home. We’ll be back soon.”

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