When I was ten I fell in love with a painter. Elio was sixty-seven at the time. He painted in striped boxer shorts and long rubber gloves in the corner of his living room, where the rhododendron had grown tentacles strangulating all the furniture in its way. Our love was pure. He never touched me, except for an occasional pat on the head the same way he touched Pepe, his crotch-sniffing cocker spaniel. Even knowing what kind of man he was, I called this a love affair because our mutual connection was the only thing keeping each of us alive. And in our neighborhood, staying alive was tricky business.
Elio had tomatoes growing in tattered wooden boxes hanging from every window in his second story apartment, some in terra cotta pots on his back porch, even a large one in a glazed ceramic in his living room. He liked the look of the leaves and the bend of stalks, he told me later, even more than the succulent texture of them when ripe.
Our apartment, across the courtyard from Elio’s, always smelled like garlic. My uncle Roland cooked everything with it. Garlic in his eggs for breakfast, his tuna for lunch, and for dinner he’d roast elephant cloves in a grotesque little rusted bread pan. And when he wasn’t cooking, he was either passed out in that worn, smelly recliner or thumping my aunt Martha. I learned three things my first week with them – to keep my mouth shut, my bedroom door locked, and to store my clothes in the hideaway cubbyhole of my closet to keep the garlic smell off of them.
Except for school, I was allowed out of the house for just a few hours a week. I’d leave on the bus at six a.m. and get home by four and do chores and homework all night. But on Saturday mornings after the laundry was done, I could go to Elio’s and sit on his couch and watch him paint. He let me make coffee out of his old tin percolator, and sometimes he brought rolls from the bakery for us. The smell of those rolls, some weeks, was my only reminder of being alive.
The first time I met Elio was the day Uncle Roland brought me to live with him. I resisted this decision, having heard stories from my cousins. Now that my mother was dead, no one lived nearby to take care of me. So it was either the man my family called The Spaghetti Drunkard or a foster home. Supposedly I had a crazy cousin who lived in Roland’s attic, and as much as I didn’t want to see him, I needed him close by. Close enough to hear his movements, smell his cigar smoke through the opened window and to know that someone I was supposed to love was within an arm’s reach.
All the furniture that day had been carried upstairs by some men from First Lutheran Church down the street; only little bags of clothes were left on the curb. So I put one bag under each arm and started up the long staircase. That’s when I first saw Elio. I knew he was a painter by the look in his eyes. They sloped down on the outside corners from a lifetime of sadness, and squinting at a canvas all day made them narrow like tiny slits in his face.
“You have Chinese eyes.”
He smiled when I said this, the eyes opening slightly wider. “It happens.”
“And you talk funny.” I’d never met anyone with that kind of accent.
“I am a Frenchman. From Marseilles.” He could tell I didn’t know where it was. “Three oceans away.”
And his hands had blue paint under the nails. He looked down at me from the top step sizing me up. I know what I must have looked like. Skinny, ten year old girl, dark hair slicked behind my ears, and eyes my mother always called ‘brooding.’ But he looked even funnier than me. Black socks, boxer shorts, a long canvas smock and a bandana around his neck tied in the back. He stepped down the stairs in hairy, sinewy legs like a lion stepping up to sniff potential prey.
“What’s your name?” he asked me.
“Lena. My real name’s Lorraine.”
He smiled and pulled the grocery bags from my arms. “Like the quiche?” He had a space between his front teeth, and thin, dry lips. The mop of grayish hair looked like it had never been combed. I wanted desperately to give him a bath and some Chapstick, but mother told me not to try to change people. Before she died, she told me a lot of things.
“Here?” he said, pointing through Roland’s opened door.
“I’m Roland’s niece.”
“Not really,” he said and smiled with half of his face. “We told the social workers that because they would only put you with bona fide family. Roland’s just an old family friend. Not your kin.”
Whatever, I thought. Family or no family, they were still just a bunch of crazy strangers.
I walked into the apartment and nodded, acknowledging the certainty of my fate. No turning back now. Elio put the bags on the kitchen floor and stood awkwardly in the corner moving his painted fingers in secret sign language. “No tomatoes in here,” he mumbled. I told him he could sit down if he wanted, but he didn’t seem to hear me. I wanted to show him the little bathroom, to see the evidence of my meager rebellion. I’d seen it when the social worker who counseled me took me here for the first time. She walked me around the whole house, glamorizing the quaintness of chipped paint and foul odors, and then she stopped in front of the bathtub. It was a waxy shade of death-beige, the kind you expect on a three or four day-old corpse, with rotted holes like it had been seared by a dozen giant cigars. It made me cry to look at it, maybe as a symbol of how forgotten I’d always felt. The enamel was skin, at that moment; the cigar burns deep, soul-twisting, unhealable wounds. That bathtub was me. I decided right then that no ten-year-old girl should have to lower her bare skin into that hellish cauldron, and from then on it was a garden. I snuck in a big bag of soil the next day and planted three small plants in the pit of Roland’s disgusting bathtub. Screw you, I thought.
Elio was asking me about Martha.
“Who?” I asked stupidly.
“Your aunt. You don’t know her?”
“It wasn’t my idea to live here, you know,” I said. “My mother died.”
And then, before Elio had the chance to answer me, we heard screams coming from one of the bedrooms. We both looked at each other and panicked. A woman shrieked over and over under the heavy blows of a man’s fist. I was ten but I wasn’t stupid. And, after all, I’d spent my life on the wrong side of the tracks. If there was one sound I had grown accustomed to, it was the sound of despair. Elio and I sat frozen at the kitchen table, huddled close in communal anxiety. He looked into the pit of my eyes and tried to comfort me. Then he leaned his head two inches toward me.
“That will never happen to you. I’ll make sure of it. Come.”
I followed him down the stairs, through the dark courtyard between the two wings of the Mediterranean Gardens apartments, and knew right then that Elio was my savior.
“Can I call you Jesus?” I asked on the way to wherever we were going.
“I don’t have time for friends, let alone miracles.”
He sat me down on a soft, red velvet chair in his apartment and brought me a plate of oatmeal cookies, followed by cold milk in a dirty glass.
I’d never tasted anything so good.
“I made them myself,” he said, and then I couldn’t help but look at his hands. Cobalt blue paint under the nails of his left hand, yellow splattered on the top of his bony knuckles. I bit into the largest, lumpiest one and decided that toxic paint poisoning was better than the white screams of strangers any day.
That night I slept on the floor of Roland and Martha’s dreary flat and dreamed of flying hippos and giant sugar cookies wrapped in white ribbon. I left the apartment before breakfast and knocked on Elio’s door.
“Come in, Shi Shi,” I heard him say. “You don’t have to knock. Have you had breakfast?”
I shook my head. Elio put down his long, bristle brush, pulled the sheet over the top of his canvas and took off his rubber gloves. They gave off the foulest smell, like rubber and paint mixed with sweat and flour. I thanked God when he washed his hands.
“She works at the Smithsonian,” he said with his back to me.
“Who?” I asked.
“Martha. She’s got a bad back and she limps on rainy days. Sometimes she’ll use the cane I gave her with the silver handle.”
“How do you know her?”
He turned to face me, then looked quickly back at the eggs he’d cracked in a fry pan. “I own the building. Both buildings. Your aunt and uncle have lived here ever since I bought it. They were my first tenants. This was just after they got married. Then Roland lost his job at the meat factory and never worked again. He developed a heart condition and has to take nitro pills just to get through the day. Just drink drink drink, and then he gets ugly when she comes home with all the money. It’s hard for a man, you know, a man his age, his generation, to let his woman go to work every day.”
“Why doesn’t he get a different job?” I asked with the naivety only a ten year old can truly master.
Elio waved his hand in the air. “Too old now. Too old and too late. Failure has already gnawed into his bones.”
“Why didn’t he find one before?”
He didn’t answer at first, which gave my imagination a chance to conjure up all kinds of answers. Prison record? Uncontrollable urges? All were possible. Insanity ran through my family like the bulls in Pamplona.
“Because sometimes a man just gives up. He doesn’t choose to do this. It’s like his mind and his heart decide for him. I try to understand Roland, but when I hear what we heard the other night,” he flung the metal spatula against the stove, “the understanding runs out.”
I stood up and went to the stove. I watched Elio closely, his freshly scrubbed hands and the deep grooves in his tanned face. His eyes were red and watery. He didn’t want me to see them. “You love her, don’t you?”
“Sit down and put a napkin in your lap,” he said and slapped a plate down hard against the table. A minute later, he added two pieces of toast to the eggs. “Is there anything you need?”
I swallowed my first mouthful of eggs quickly, as I knew this chance would only come once. “Two things.”
Elio sat down beside me, listening, and wrestled his gnarled fingers into the rubber gloves again.
He scrunched up his face. “There’s a tub in the bathroom next to your bedroom. Isn’t there?”
“Have you seen it??” I mocked.
Elio shrugged. “Not in many years. They don’t clean it?”
“It’s not just dirty. It’s stained brown and green and there are big rust spots all over the bottom.” I used my dirty napkin to wipe two tears from my eye. To me it was more than just a dirty bathtub. He seemed to understand this somehow.
He touched my shoulder and motioned for me to follow him into the other room. He had one bathroom in the hallway, but another one off of his bedroom. He opened the door to the hall bathroom and smiled, showing a space between his yellow/gray teeth.
“The bathroom in there is mine,” he said pointing to his room. “This one is Shi Shi’s. The fixtures are brand new – I installed them myself, but it’s too far away for an old man to get to in the middle of the night. No one’s used it for years.” He drew me a tub and set a yellow towel and face cloth on the sink. “You said two things.”
“I want to learn to paint.”
“No,” he said and scowled.
It’s all right. I was only ten. I had the rest of my life to break him down.
After a year or so, I realized it wasn’t such a bad deal after all. The beatings only happened on the first of every month when Martha got paid, and Martha was nice to me when Blackie, Elio’s nickname for him, was passed out. I was walking distance to a good school, and Elio gave me a job sweeping the stairs every night after dinner. He paid me ten dollars a week for this service, which I was allowed to spend on anything I liked. Martha and Roland knew nothing of this arrangement, naturally, as I kept everything from them. I was the skinny, gray ghost who walked the hallways of their flat and occasionally smelled like tomatoes.
Eventually I planted seeds in the bathtub garden. Elio helped me smuggle in 10 five-pound bags of compost soil, which we spread evenly over the stained, rusty porcelain, and after a month I had sprouts coming up. He asked me, once, why I had chosen tomato plants to put in the bathtub garden. Though I’d always felt a connection with vegetable gardens and tomatoes in general, I couldn’t explain my obsession with them beyond that. To me, they were magic, like a kind of chocolate from another world.
So my bathing ritual at Elio’s happened every morning at six o’clock. I had to get up after Martha left for work but before Blackie woke so he wouldn’t know I was gone. Not that he cared or would even notice, but his anger was like a shotgun pellet. You never knew exactly where it was going to hit.
I crept out my bedroom window to the fire escape, climbed down the stairs in my stocking feet and ran across the courtyard to Elio’s and entered his flat with my own key. This arrangement made me feel slightly glamorous, like the scandal of a rich old married millionaire having a daily triste with a young schoolgirl. I took a hot bath in Elio’s spotless tub, and before leaving if Elio was still asleep, I’d peek at the paintings in progress under the protective sheet on his easel.
What I found every day was something different than what he painted in the afternoons when I was at school. I know this because of the one gift mother gave me before she died – binoculars. If I crammed my body against the west wall of my bedroom and leaned down at a precise forty-five degree angle, I could sometimes get a glimpse of Elio painting through the spaces between the fire escape stairs. It was larger than his other canvas and had a black and gray palette, but that’s all I could make out from the distance between the buildings. I was determined to find that painting but was convinced he stored it inside his mattress while he was sleeping since I couldn’t find it anywhere else.
Every morning when I came in to take my bath, I tiptoed around Elio’s apartment looking for his secret painting. It was nowhere. How could this be? By the time I got to school every day, I was spotlessly clean and furious for my frustration. The apartment wasn’t that big, and I searched in every possible crevice; even under the bed where he was sleeping. I looked for hidden pull-valves that might yank up the wooden floorboards, or secret doors disguised as walls. Whatever standard I had come to accept about the mind slacking off in old age was hogwash. Elio knew I was looking and every day I failed he was outsmarting me. Why didn’t he want me to see it? Did he have a secret girlfriend, or a wife? Was it a man? I didn’t know what men did with other men, but I at least knew other people didn’t like the idea of it. Then again, Elio was too old for frivolity of any kind, let alone anything personal. I held the only secret place in his heart. I kept telling myself that.
Martha and Blackie oddly allowed me weekend furloughs, where I could have dinner at Elio’s. Every meal in his apartment, I came to realize, served fresh tomatoes. I braced him up over steak dinner once.
“I know, you know.”
“The proper name for the common tomato is lycopersicon lycopersicum. Did you know that?”
This was part of his avoidance-tendency, I came to realize, spewing out tomato trivia when he didn’t want to answer a question.
He tried to hide his smile. His lips stayed pencil-straight but his eyes and cheekbones moved. A-HA! I had him, now, didn’t I?
“Know what, Shi-Shi? How’s your school project going?”
“About your painting.”
“What about it?”
“Your ‘special’ painting.” I didn’t need to tell him about the binoculars my mother gave me, or about how I stalked him from my bedroom window, and how I actually caught him switching out the paintings once, taking the one he was working on and shifting it from the easel to the floor, replacing it with something long-finished and bone dry. He knew this already. That’s what was special between us, this strange telepathy, a sort of haphazard mind meld between two like minds.
“Go look, if you’re curious. There’s one on the easel I’ve been working on day and night.”
But I knew this would be one of the decoys. Damn him.
I swallowed hard when I heard the God-awful familiar sound. Martha’s screams out the kitchen window. They fanned out through the whole courtyard. Usually the screams were muffled, like angry moans. This time I heard actual words. “No, stop it, stop it!!” Elio lit a cigarette from a pack that materialized out of thin air. He kept them hidden all over the house. And that was the end of our conversation about secret paintings.
A month later, several strange things happened. Elio started cleaning up the apartment, and men in suits came to see him and sat in his living room with folders full of white papers. And Blackie wasn’t in our apartment one day when I came home from school.
He was gone.
Not that I ever really wanted to see him, but I got used to the sound of his snoring and the cloud of garlic and bourbon in the air when he was passed out in his chair. And I found it to be no coincidence whatsoever that today was Martha’s birthday.
Casey Stemka, the only friend I’d made at Bloomberg Elementary School, said that Martha had probably killed him with her bare hands. But Casey had never seen Martha, the way she limped and walked with a cane, not to mention the wideness of her girth. Besides, I had ideas of my own. It was five thirty now on a quiet, unsuspecting Thursday night. Martha stood at the stove stir-frying vegetables with a yellow sauce bubbling in the pan next to it.
“Lena, take your shoes off,” she said.
But I didn’t take them off today. Instead I walked through the empty house, stood for a while in the empty living room and then stood in front of her with my arms crossed.
“Where’s Uncle Roland?” I demanded in my strongest Gestapo voice. “He’s not all drunk in his chair like he always is, and he’s not on the porch. Did you send him to the store?” I knew she knew something, and I was prepared to grill her all night if I had to. Casey was a feminist and had advised a different strategy. She said that Martha had been through enough living with him all these years and who cares if she killed him anyway? Nobody could mourn such a cowardly beast and certainly no one would miss him.
Martha put down the wooden spoon in her hand and rested her half-smoked cigarette on the ashtray on the counter. “He went away for a few days.” Was I imagining it, or did her complexion look smoother today? Her hair wasn’t long and untidy like before, either. Today it was combed and neatly pinned back the nape of her neck.
“Doesn’t he like us anymore?” I knew I was treading on thin ice but didn’t care anymore about consequences. I’d seen enough of them already in my life.
She gave me an icy stare that showed a hardness in her round face. Uncle Roland was dead; that much was obvious. But then again, what’s obvious to a ten year old isn’t necessarily the truth. So I needed proof. I ran all the way across the courtyard to Elio’s and used my key to get in. I saw him hunched over the easel with a tiny brush in one hand holding onto the canvas to steady himself. He turned toward me as I stood in the kitchen by the stove.
“What the matter, Shi Shi?”
“Uncle Roland’s missing.”
He frowned. “I know. Martha called me just before you got home. I’m sure he just went to the tavern for a few drinks.”
“He hates that tavern and all the people in it. Even I know that much about him.” I stared at him now with more than just accusatory eyes. There was blame, hatred, and mistrust aimed at the only person I’d ever really loved. All for Roland, of all people, if he even qualified as people. I took ten steps toward Elio and watched him continue to paint with a tiny brush and just half of his brain. With the other half, he regarded me silently, reading my thoughts.
“Roland’s dead and somebody killed him.” There. I’d said it. Now, whatever the consequences were, bring them on. I was more than ready to defend a wife-beating drunkard, my own kin, a man with no redeeming qualities, because so far in my life I’d never had the opportunity to defend anyone. It would have been more authentic to defend Elio but he hadn’t done anything wrong. So Roland it was. I didn’t know why I cared, and deep down I didn’t. My defense was more an exercise in caring, like practicing algebra equations so you’ll know how to do them easier in the future. Caring became like karmic insurance.
“Where is he?” I said with my hands on my hips.
“At the bar, probably.”
“No, Elio.” I cleared my throat. “Look at me.”
“Martha doesn’t have to pay any more rent so she can retire from the museum if she wants.”
“Where’s Uncle Roland?”
“Oh, now he’s Uncle Roland?” Elio mocked. “No more Blackie? The Spaghetti Drunkard or all the other terrible names you’ve called him? Why should you care where he is?”
I frowned and crossed my arms.
“Alright, he’s had a massive heart attack.”
“I don’t think so,” I replied, unmoving.
Elio sat carefully on the edge of the blue plaid sofa and lit a cigarette. “You see, I’ve sold the building, Shi Shi, and bought us a little house.”
“Us? Who’s ‘us’? Me and you, or me and you and Roland’s widow?”
Elio never liked my smart-alleck voice. He was shaking his head.
Then the mind-meld again. I left the living room and went rummaging around in Roland’s bedroom, his bathroom, in the cabinet. I was in my bare feet, and my foot felt something hard under the rug in front of the sink. I leaned down to pick it up, and glanced behind me to see if Elio had followed. He didn’t have to. He knew what I was doing. It was a small vial of pills.
Roland’s nitroglycerin pills. Martha told him all the time that he’d die without them, before shoving one between his bottom teeth and his lip.
“Shouldn’t you go to confession or something?” I asked with the pills squeezed in my palm.
“Not confession – I’m not sorry. I’m going to hell. But see, don’t worry about me, because there’s a special place there for those of us who kill really bad people. It’s sort of like God’s work, but using a shortcut instead of taking the long way around. Like wading through a murky pond instead of walking around its perimeter. I got impatient, Shi Shi, that’s the problem when you get old. You get more patient about some things, and you don’t get as disappointed when life tries to screw you. But in other ways, your tolerance for bullshit drops exponentially every year.”
Elio arranged to sell the apartment building for a fantastically low price in exchange for maintaining all his current tenants for the next year, and I only found out later that he’d buried Roland in the tomato garden of my bathtub. By then, the plants were as high as the ceiling. He said by the time anyone found out, we’d be in a flat in Marseilles, going for long walks and drinking sherry with lunch every day at high noon.
It’s amazing what the mind forgets, like the act of forgetting is a conscious rather than unconscious impulse. The painting. Where was it? Had he taken it with us to France? Or was it just a figment of a ten year old’s stifled imagination? Eighteen months later, on my twelfth birthday, Elio brought out a package. Martha had baked a cake the width of the Seine and there were candles lit all over our little house. I was happier here than any other time in my life. I think I was happy for the first time ever.
“Happy Birthday, Shi Shi. You are twelve and you won’t hear these words, but in my old age I must say them anyway. Savor your youth. One spends the rest of his life chasing it.”
He slid the package across the carpet. It was about eighteen by twenty-six inches and wrapped in the brown paper he wrapped all his paintings in when they were finished and being transported to galleries. This one was special. It was his secret painting, ‘the’ painting. I felt its vibration like a hot, sweet tornado erupting as I pulled the paper from the taped hinges. And I felt my body freeze when my eyes beheld the image. Tears fell unannounced from my wide eyes; I couldn’t wipe them fast enough even to see. What was the meaning of this reaction? Is this what the body does when it’s in shock, or when it feels uncontrollable joy? What I felt was confusion. The expertly painted face on the canvas was in gentle tones, soft brush strokes, and obviously painted with a soft-bristled brush, lovingly painted and with a deep intimacy and penetrating knowing of the subject. It idolized the image of a face I’d spent years looking at – at a face I knew even before I was born.
It was the face of my mother.
“What – what is this?” I could barely talk. Martha was rubbing my back, and it occurred to me that, if Blackie really wasn’t my uncle, maybe Martha wasn’t my aunt either. Martha and Elio’s collusion to kill Blackie seemed even stranger right now. And the notion of family felt, suddenly, blurred.
“What does this mean?” I used my cloth napkin, the kind Martha used for special occasions, to wipe my eyes now, as my sleeve proved inadequate to hide my emotions. “Did you know my mother?”
What Elio did next was a combination between laughing and crying. “Well I hope so.” His voice cracked. “She was my daughter.”
“So you are…”
“Did you know tomatoes were once considered poisonous by U.S. colonists?”
“Stop it! I need to know.” I sniffed. “Please.”
“Just labels, Shi Shi. These are names we acquire only in our relation to other people – not our God given names, and not our professions. I am Elio the painter, I am Martha’s husband, and you are the dearest thing to me in all the world. Eat your cake.”