Had Celia not known exactly where the Torado abode was, she would not have found it in twilight’s light. Its exterior was a very dingy affair. Compared to the pedigree façade of Irma’s, the home she was pulling up to now was a junkyard dog. From the road, it vanished into the scenery, the flat brown scenery.
There were no cars in front of the house, so she correctly assumed the thing to do was to park, like the others, behind the house, and yes, the cars were parked back there.
As she cut the engine, she noticed a sliver of light coming from a window whose curtain had been minimally pulled aside to accommodate a watchful eye. And then it was dark again.
“A regular welcome wagon.”
Phil met Celia at the door, happy to see her, and Phil was a man who one might suspect, assigned the sacred duty to be always a flawless host.
The scene inside was as diametrically opposite to everything else in Ardensville as one could ever imagine. Once again, had she awoke in this home, she might be convinced she was in Bensonhurst or Howard Beach or North Jersey.
Everyone was drinking and smoking, except that small bird-like man from the market who sat somewhat off to the side and only drank, though he did chew celery sticks with urgency. The boys smoked cigars and the girls smoked cigarettes. Introductions were made, and Celia could not remember when the drink showed up in her hand.
“You know Mary and Mike over there. That’s Rose on the couch with Vincent. Jimmy waitin' to play cards and Lina and Barbara in the kitchen.” Lina and Barbara waved from the open kitchen.
“Who is that distinguished gentleman in the corner?” Celia asked, her curiosity peaked.
“Oh, yeah, ’at’s my cousin Lou. He’s always been a lil’ loopy but he’s one of us so we brought’m and he helps in the store. He’s harmless. My aunt Giselle devoted her life to him.” Phil crossed himself.
“Did we come to play cards or should I deal solitaire ova heah?” barked an impatient Jimmy, clearly not a charm school graduate.
Silently, with stealth and then some, an austere and elegant man, perfectly attired though entirely distinct and in-homogeneous to the group, glided into the room, seemingly from nowhere.
“Aye, Celia, this is Hank but he’d like it if ya called him Henry. Ain’t that right Henry. Hank is our “liaison” to the Feds and the world. He brings the good cigars and booze.”
“How’s bout a case of Manhattan Specials fa chris sake Hank?” was Mary’s two cents while putting the sandwiches on the card table.
“How do you do Celia. I am special agent Henry Durrant. Mary informed me about you and your visit to Ardensville. Welcome to our fair city.”
“I didn’t inform, I mentioned it, I mentioned it fa chris sake. Fuggin’ feds.” Mary went to but also did not graduate charm school.
“You must possess highly developed investigative and social skills,” continued Agent Durrant, “to have realized, infiltrated, and survived our little enclave here. I applaud you, Celia. Really, I do.”
“Okay, c’mon,” announced Phil, “Are we playin’ cards here
or What’s My Line?”
The assembled men, excluding Lou and Hank, who parked himself on a strategically placed stool, adjourned to the card area with its grand casino-style card table, dramatic lighting and everything. The wives stayed where they were, and all was regular except for the new and unusual woman who was now in the game with no apparent culture shock. In fact, she even grabbed a Cuban, and in impersonation of the men around her, ritually prepared it, lit it, and it hung from the corner of her mouth to the awe and great respect of the boys. And Hank.
The game was going on an hour or better now. The better part of a fresh bottle of tequila was gone, and Celia was up. A lot. As she re-ordered the just dealt hand, she began to hum. For most of the men, this meant another hand they’d better fold on, but Phil realized something else and started to hum with Celia.
“Aye, I know dat,” Phil rejoiced. “Wus dat tune?”
Hank was delighted and amused. He seemed to sense what was going to happen, clearly.
“It’s Verdi, Para Migi Caro, last act of Traviata,” Celia answered, not sure if she had said or hummed something wrong while laying down 3 jacks and a pair of sevens.
“Yeah, yeah, Para migi caro,” and Phil was singing in a rich full tenor. The cigar departed from Celia’s lips and she began to sing. Para migi is a romantic and tragic duet. The men put their cards down, and the whole table and Hank were bathed in the light of operatic content.
“Ohh!!, just fuggin great. Who invited Maria Callas ova heah. Aye Hank, what they run outta Dusty Spingfields back home? Maybe ya gotta Tina Turner sittin’roun’ not doing anything.”
Mary and the girls were out the door with a bottle of Cinzano and a newfound appreciation of the night sky.
Glasses were full, cheeks were red, and the men and Celia swayed as one. The women were probably not far enough from the house to know how wonderfully the group sang the drinking song.
Hours later, very tired, somewhat drunk, and a little bit hoarse, Celia was holding up the wall at the bottom of the stairs that led to her apartment and bed. The method she employed was to fall forward up the stairs while still leaning on the wall. If she could get to the top step and then maybe crawl the rest, that would be good. Or maybe just take a short nap on the landing.
Halfway up, Celia caught her shoulder on one of those picture nails left in the wall by Irma’s ancestors, and added to the falling up the stairs momentum, she felt a tug and heard a rip.
The victim of this chance meeting was Celia’s precious jacket. The Penny jacket. Suddenly sober, Celia charged upstairs to assess the damage to her holy vestment.
Upon examination, yet again, Celia came to discover what Penny failed to remember or confess on the porch. Beneath the beautiful patchwork quilt work lied the truth about Penny’s past from which she was now a refugee in the present.
She found patches, the sort of patches one would attach to a football jersey. These were not those patches, not exactly. Instead of Smithtown Bulldogs, one patch said S.D.S. Another now exposed patch did not say Uniondale Lady Lions. It said simply “Authority?” Another displayed “SNCC.”
“Well hello, Miss Penny!”
The haze of tequila lifted. The dust on the road settled, and Celia saw the landscape and the horizon in the cleansing light of,
“U-huh, what it is, what it is, what it is.”