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The Sleep of the Dead
The first time they took Frankie to the orphanage, she couldn’t speak English. Only Italian. “Voglio mio padre! Voglio mio padre!” That’s what she said, over and over and over.
At least, that’s what the nuns told her she said. She couldn’t remember any of it.
The second time they took her to the orphanage, the last time, she didn’t say anything at all. Not one word. For months.
She didn’t remember that either.
What she did remember: her father’s shoe shop on Irving Park Road. The scent of calfskin and polish. The cramped apartment behind the shop. The metal tub sitting in the middle of the kitchen. Cold bathwater wrinkling her little toes. The rough scrape of Aunt Marion’s brush on her back.
And then the shot from her parents’ bedroom—so sharp, so loud, so wrong. The thud of Aunt Marion’s footsteps as she ran from the kitchen. The screams. So much screaming.
Frankie remembered climbing from the tub, falling to the floor, hitting her elbow so hard the bones sang all the way up to her skull. Crawling, hot tears on her face. Pushing at the bedroom door to see the body slumped on the bed, smoke and copper in the air. Crossing the threshold from one world to another.
Most of all, she remembered the door itself. The rusted hinges. The gouges and nicks. The pencil smell of the wood, and then all the other smells that had seeped into it—leather, garlic, salt, blood. How Aunt Marion turned, scooped her up, and slammed that door behind them.
Frankie wouldn’t always let herself remember these things. Most of the time, she didn’t think about them at all. Yet she had her quiet days, her pensive ones, those days when she dug through her memories, trying to find the truth at the bottom of them. As if the truth were a jewel you could unearth and hold in your hand, as if the truth wasn’t more like something you’d find under a rock, gray and faceless and squirming away from the light.
But Frankie hadn’t done any kind of digging on this particular night in the spring of 1946, unless you counted picking through a garbage pail to find a dime tip she’d accidentally tossed away with a customer’s half-eaten sandwich. After working a double shift, she’d gotten home at midnight and collapsed fully clothed onto her bed, not even bothering to take off a mustard-stained apron that stank of onions. And though the air wafting through the cracked window held the sweet promise of spring, though all her wars were over, though she should have felt safe, finally safe, after all this time, Frankie woke up hours later in a prickling sweat, tangled and feverish, certain her mother had been whispering in her ear.
She sat up, clutching at her throat. “Mama?” she said. But her room was still and silent, the moon cutting a wide silver swath out of the dark. Her mother wasn’t there. Would never be there. It was impossible. Frankie remembered that now, just when she didn’t want to.