In the dead of winter, I keep an eye on April.
In April, my heart is set on July. That's my favorite month. The Fourth is my second favorite holiday, after Christmas. First Christmas, then the Fourth. And a couple of weeks into July, the farm stands come to life. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and yes, oh yes: corn on the cob! Did I mention peaches? Ripe and juicy and sweet as the dickens! As good as it gets.
I met my wife in Rome, Italy. Not that she was a Roman, or even Italian. Well, yeah, she was of Italian descent, but American, like me. I'm from here, Plainview. It's sunny, most days in Plainview. And cool in July, being pretty far north and in the foothills.
I'm not of Italian descent, I'm of Bulgarian descent, Rchovich is the name, Pep Rchovich, and engineering is my game. My major when I was at Plainview Junior College. I always liked figuring out what makes things tick. I was eight when I took apart the family radio, took it all apart, examined it, had the pieces spread out on the braided carpet. Well, Mom almost had a coronary when she walked in the living room. I told her to take a deep breath, have a seat on the sofa and watch. I proceeded to put the dang thing back together, had it working better than new, I swear. I have an instinct for the mechanical nature of things. Most things can be broken down to mechanics. Except, say, a peach. In July. That's not mechanical. That's magic.
Rosa, my wife, died, a few years ago. TB is what I tell people.
My dad drove a milk truck. We didn't have a ton of dough, and our old house was on the wrong side of the tracks, but that's okay. I had three brothers and three sisters. I was smack dab in the middle of the seven, and I did okay. I'm still alive. And in high school, straight A's, and a scholarship to Plainview Junior College, learned my trade.
I punch the clock at A.C. Roberts & Sons Manufacturing, a drafting table jockey. We have a great bunch of fellows. Even "Old Man" Roberts ain't a bad egg. Sure, he's the boss. His rules, et cetera. But when you get to know him, you see he's all right, a regular guy. Aboveboard.
Two brothers died, Korea, cancer. And one sister, car crash. And my parents, old age.
I've seen a lot of death, but I'm okay. I'm fine. I missed Korea. Did my two years in the army, but didn't re-up. Just did my bit, my two cents, after college, to show my appreciation for being an American, I guess. Then, as a treat, my trip to Europe. Rome, Italy. Met Rosa. Married.
I'd like to go Bulgaria some day. The old country. I'd love to see the village my grandparents escaped. I can remember them, but it's hazy. They died when I was little. Fire burned their house to the ground, them in it. It was a big story in Plainview. I remember the funeral. And the wake. There's nothing quite like a Bulgarian wake. Bulgarians, and I say this with great affection: we are a crazy people. Not crazy like Italians. Not crazy like the Irish. We have our own kind of crazy. At a Bulgarian wake you're likely to see a fistfight. But just a one-on-one. Never ever a free-for-all.
Yeah, the old neighborhood was pretty hardscrabble. A hotbed of Bulgarian families, but mostly Welsh, the loser Welsh, the dregs who hadn't moved out to West Plainview. Bulgarian kids were outnumbered, but we were handy with our fists, held our own and then some. The Welshies learned to back off. My oldest brother, Pytr, knocked the front teeth out of the Welshie gang leader. Knocked the teen's chompers clean out. After that, peace. I even dated the punk's sister in high school. She was a good kid. Anyway, Pytr is dead. Korea.
We had some times back then. Like when I was 10 or 11, and someone left the keys in their Ford's ignition. I fired that baby right up, drove around, could barely see over the dash. I picked up some pals, we tooled around like we were big shots. There were a few bucks in the glove compartment, so I pulled into the Esso station, told the boy to fill her up, and make sure the windshield was so clean it'd win a prize. He bust out laughing, but when I flashed the bills, we were solid. He was still laughing as we pulled away. But he couldn't squawk. I paid him in full, gave him a dime tip to boot. A pack of Luckies on the dash, so of course we helped ourselves. It must've been a sight! Five little kids driving this big old Ford, smoking like pint-size chimneys, motoring right down Main Street like we owned it. Like we were Al Capone's crew!
I'm a good driver, my dad taught me when I was little, he'd let me take the wheel on occasion, starting on back roads or parking lots, but pretty soon he'd let me barrel down the highway. The thing is, Bulgarians don't follow the rules. We do as we please, within reason. Welsh follow the rules. Easy to sucker punch a Welshie.
I first met Rosa at a café, noon. We took to each other right away, two American kids, alone in a foreign city. We spent the days walking, walking, walking. And talking, as only kids can do. She had the loveliest black hair, long. Sleek. And deep dark eyes. And hips that swayed, that invited you to stare, to admire. She was scrumptious!
Rosa was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
One afternoon we walked for miles to the Colosseum, settled on the lawn. One thing led to another and we were kissing like maniacs—until a cop waltzed over and conked me on the side of my head with his nightstick. I'll never forget that day. It was so romantic. We strolled back, hand in hand, stopped for dinner at a hole-in-the-wall. Chianti and spaghetti and Rosa. Heaven. So, we got hitched, bought this house, settled down. And all was hunky-dory, a hundred percent. For months. Maybe a year or two. But one day, there was just something about her. Annoying. At first, just a little annoying. The way her eyes set when she decided I was wrong. And her mouth, off to the side, lips tight. She got this sour look, like Jimmy Cagney with dyspepsia. I thought she was gonna say, "Ya rat, ya dirty rat! Ya kilt my brudder!" And increasingly I was wrong, always wrong. Never right. But the death knell was when she packed on the poundage. I'd hint that she ought to say ixnay to the cheesecake. To no avail. If I threw the cheesecake out, told her I ate it, she'd just buy another. And another. And add whipped cream.
Her hips grew and grew, grew too wide. This wasn't what I signed up for. Once, when she came home with a cheesecake, I piped up, "Ladies and gentlemen! Here she comes! The fat lady from the circus!" She lobbed the cheesecake right at me. I ducked, and it sailed through the kitchen door into the living room. I fell to the floor laughing, but she pounded her chubby little fists on my back, played a tune on my kidneys!
In the old days, before Rosa got fat, we'd go to the movies and I swear, I'd see some Hollywood actress up there on that big silver screen, in Technicolor and CinemaScope, and Rosa was more beautiful than that famous star. Little Rosa. In real life. More beautiful than that untouchable star as big as a billboard. It made me feel like a million bucks when we left the theater. I knew all the other guys hated my guts for having such a gorgeous girl.
And almost as bad as the fat was her nagging, nagging, nagging. I'd be reading the paper, or trying to read, trying to read “Dear Abby” or the funnies, and she'd be going full bore with the incessant nagging. I'd start to read and get interrupted, have to start over, again and again. Bad enough the nagging, but from a fat slob was too much. A fever point was the snowy Saturday we went to Kresge's on Main Street. They had the heat jacked up to toasty, I guess to keep the packed-in rabble too weak to resist buying junk. If it'd been this hot in August, they would've been blasting the air conditioning. In my overcoat I was sweating bullets. I removed my muffler and shoved it into a coat pocket. Rosa had been on my back all morning and I welcomed the chance to be apart from her; while she shopped for lingerie I could nose around, find an empty corner of this madhouse and just be alone, blessedly alone. But before we separated, she sneered, "I don't know why I ever married you. I could've done a lot better, boy."
My eyes searched for an oasis but landed on a rack of baseball bats as she turned and strutted away. I picked up a hefty Louisville Slugger and tapped it into my palm while choking back the urge to kill, to stride right up to her and slam the bat down on the top of her skull! With all of my might! Braining her, knocking her to the floor, and then proceed to wail away on her noggin, smashing it to a bloody pulp as if it were an overripe melon. But I didn't. I placed the bat back on the rack and worked my way across the creaky wooden floor to the candy stand and ordered a bag of chocolate-coated peanuts from the lady. The chocolate made a mess on my fingers, so I fought through the crowd to the back, to the men's room to wash my hands.
Staring into the mirror I saw my face as if for the first time in years. Lines that I never noticed had knifed deep jags into my flesh. I knew I had to do something. I couldn't live in this hellish marriage until I was too old to fight. I opened the men's room window and sucked in cold refreshing air. I was exhausted and thirsty. I left the men's room and struggled through the masses to the soda fountain, sat at the counter and ordered a Coke. I squinted at the soda jerk; he looked familiar, but I couldn't place him. Then a light went on!
"Hey, pal, didn't you use to work at the Esso station?"
"Yeah, years ago. A lot of people ask me that," he replied while wiping the counter.
"Do you remember a bunch of little kids driving up in a 1940 Ford?"
"Ha ha! Yeah, I do, as a matter of fact! Were you there!"
"Ha ha! I was the kid driving!"
"No kidding! I remember that clear as a bell! And you tipped me! A dime! Ha ha! I'll never forget! Tell ya what, Coke's on the house. Just don't tell the boss. Ha ha!"
"Ha ha! Thanks, buddy!"
Rosa spotted me, shot over like a torpedo, scowling, broke up the fun. "Let's go. My dogs are killin' me," she whined and headed to the door. I polished off the Coke and placed a dime on the counter as a tip, winked at the guy and said, "For old times!"
"Ha ha! See ya around, chum!"
Rosa and I drove home, the snowfall now a blizzard, in stony silence. White-out conditions forced me to a crawl, flashers on, inching ahead, praying some idiot wouldn't rear-end my brand new Merc. That night we occupied opposite sides of the bed, as far apart as was humanly possible. When I'd drift into slumber, she'd snore or snort, waking me up. I retreated to the sofa, my new bed for the rest of the so-called marriage.
What happens? What sort of fiend is Time? One day you're on a cloud with an angel, then you turn around and you're mired in quicksand with a snarling beast at your throat.
I've got a new gal, a divorcée, Lolly. Her husband clobbered her once too often, hence the divorce. I don't know if I'm in any hurry to remarry, or if she's even The One. Used goods, you know? I like 'em factory fresh! Still, we have some good times. A picnic on Mount Gershon. A Sunday drive. Or drinks on the patio.
Sometimes when I'm alone I put a record on the phonograph, "Holiday in Rome," light up a smoke and think about Rosa in Roma, when we were young, when we were gay, in the very beginning. The record is beautiful, truly beautiful, Italian melodies performed by a string orchestra, first-class, conducted by some French guy, and there are mandolins. The mandolins really give it the Italian flavor. I tell people it was TB.
It wasn't TB.