The Red String

by Dimitrije Medenica


Sipping her morning coffee, Rosa pulled the amber velvet curtains of her living-room windows, dragged a chair from her dining table, and sat to observe her rose garden fronting the street. Traffic noise filled the air of Hoboken’s Hudson Street. Windshields tossed sun rays against the windows of stern townhouses, and the sound of blowing horns bounced off walls.

But Rosa’s townhouse spoke through creaking beams and buckling floors. Rosa still heard her children straddle the heavy mahogany handrail and slide, striving to avoid colliding with the newel post. “Lucky I had no boys!” Rosa chuckled and turned to look at the dark empty stairwell.

A loving husband, two girls, and a dog: Rosa had lived a full life. But now loneliness crept between her ribs, poking at her heart, keeping her awake to bring memories.

The browns and deep reds of her rooms had felt warm and private when Mario, her husband, had been alive. She longed for the colors of her childhood in the flower-filled lower Hudson Valley. She felt the roses call to her as if Mario had a hand in their blooming.

She recalled his thick-lipped smile, held in check by his pinkish bulbous nose, his “Rumpole” nose she called it. A bright man, a successful jeweler attentive to the minutest of details, Mario had died in his fifties, clutching his last cup of Chianti at the dinner table.

Rosa took a sip of coffee. She lifted her eyes and saw her neighbor Angela. A few years younger, Angela had bought a smaller townhouse two blocks from Rosa. While Rosa had wallowed in her family life, her children growing to become successful doctors, Angela’s marriage had been barren. Angela had always vied for Mario’s attention, even after Rosa had married him.

When Angela’s husband travelled, Rosa would often see her waiting at the street corner, her hands full of grocery bags, ready to spill one and have Mario help her carry the groceries home. On such days, Angela always wore short skirts and a loose V-cut blouse. And she let her hair fall over her shoulders.

Rosa, busy with readying her children for bed, would fume and stare out the kids’ window as the lasagna turned cold on the dinner table downstairs. She had never confronted her husband or Angela, because she felt her marriage would have suffered. Deep inside, Rosa had trusted her husband, and her anger had never been directed at him.

But the years had emboldened her. Angela stopped in front of Rosa’s house, lit a cigarette, and looked at the new garden over the rusted fence.

Rosa gritted her teeth and opened the window. “Buon giorno, Angela. What brings you here?”

B’giorno, Rosa. Nice garden. Do you think you could spare a rose? I’d so much like to have one in my kitchen. Mario so loved roses. They remind me of how nice a man he was!”

Angela leaned her bone-thin frame on the iron pickets bordering the sidewalk to catch a breath. Her long black dress fluttered to reveal throbbing, squat calves above clog-like black shoes.

“No! I’m sorry Angela. This is a surprise for my children. I couldn’t do that. I’m sure you understand. They bring memories of my Mario and my kids will love them, memories of my Mario!”

“Rosa, you can’t possibly think I—”

“Angela, who do you take me for? I saw you ogle Mario for years.” Rosa tightened her lips and frowned, her hands beginning to shake as she gripped the window sill.

“But its just a rose, Rosa! Not Mario, not the kids! Besides, I never... That’s just ridiculous,” said Angela.

“And those little strawberry tarts you baked for my kids, whenever Mario walked the children? Mind you, only when Mario walked them, not when I walked them,” said Rosa.

“They loved my pastries. I remember them saying they made them feel right at home,” said Angela.

“So do I, Angela, so do I... They were too fattening anyway. And the kids always got sick from your treats. And you won’t have my flowers, so shoo, get outta here!” Rosa leaned on the windowsill, her head poking below the upper sash, her face as red as her roses.

“Rosa, old age clouds your words.” Angela forced a smile and tilted her head as when she had looked at Mario with her grocery bags. “Just one rose?” She pushed herself off the picket fence and poked her hand. She cursed, her lips tight: “Just one, you selfish witch!” Rosa could not hear her.

“No! Angela. I just got these babies yesterday from the Fourteenth Street Garden Center. Why don’t you get some yourself?” Rosa could not bring herself to give her a single rose from any of the white ceramic pots that filled one corner of her brick patio. Rosa leaned back in her chair and shut the window, her shaking cane still holding back the heavy velvet curtain.

“Ok, that’s a good idea, Rosa. I’m sorry to bother you. Have a nice day!” Angela let go of the rail, rubbed her hand, and clutched her thick leather purse under her armpit. “You wait and see, you old shrew,” Angela whispered and waved her fist when she turned the street corner.

* * *

Rosa switched the light on in her stairwell. It always took her a long time to negotiate the creaking steps, because of her osteoarthritis, compounded by her weight, but also because her descent was peppered with portraits of a long family history. She longed to show the rose garden to her children and grandchildren. “My little paradise,” she said.

The coffee machine brewed coffee at 6:30 a.m. every morning, and the beeping brought Rosa back from a world of memories. She entered the living room through the Victorian inlaid-panel doorframe. The curtains had been drawn the night before, as every evening, and she leaned on chairs, tables, and chests to reach the amber velvet curtain.

Her dining chair still stood there, because she had left it, expecting to drink a cup of cappuccino, reveling in the sight of her rose garden. She pulled the curtains open, tied them to their hooks on the wall, and dropped into the chair cushion after placing her cup on the coffee table.

Light raindrops were bouncing off her windowpane and cascading into the rose garden. When Rosa dropped her eyes to the garden, she noticed someone had cut roses from one of her pots. “What? Who would?” She knocked the cappuccino cup off the coffee table, and it spilled on her oriental rug. “Oh, dammit!”

Rosa wobbled to the vestibule, grabbed her cane, donned a bright green raincoat, and limped outside, her knee-bones grinding. One hand gripped the cane, while the other slid along the stone balustrade.

“Let me help you,” said a young man. He opened her gate and rushed in. “Hold my hand.”

“That’s kind of you, Giuseppe,” said Rosa. “But I can manage.”

“No, no, Rosa. Take my arm, I insist!” Giuseppe offered Rosa his arm and disarmed her with his smile. She held his wiry arm and negotiated the last few steps, her eyes riveted on her flower garden. “Thanks, Giuseppe. It’s nice to know an old lady like me can count on someone!”

“It’s always a pleasure to help. I’m sorry but I’ve got to run; I’ll be late for work.”

“No worry, my old bones’ve seen worse. Say, you didn’t happen to see someone running away from here with a bunch of roses, would you?”

“No, I’m sorry. Nice garden you’ve got there! Did someone steal your roses? Tell me, Rosa, and I’ll get ’em!”

“Somebody did. But, Giuseppe, I’ll take care of it. I still can!” She jabbed the air with her cane.

“I’m sure you can, Rosa!” Giuseppe backed a step to avoid a random jab from Rosa’s cane. He waved goodbye and ran down the street. Far from believing Giuseppe had stolen the roses, Rosa thought that he might have witnessed something. After all, Giuseppe worked late and, when he did not work, he frequented the bars on Washington Street, a block from Rosa’s townhouse.

Maybe one of Giuseppe’s friends? But no, Giuseppe would never have let one of his friends steal her flowers. Rosa reached the rose stumps in one of the pots and stood, leaning on her cane, the rain drilling on her plastic hood.

“My poor, poor babies.” Rosa wiped a tear. Her bony hand pressed on the cane, and she knelt on the jagged brick patio. Dipping her hand in the damp earth, she watched the earth wash off in the dry riverbeds of her crumpled palm. Rosa’s blowfish-like cheeks puffed as she stood, her knees stabbing her. “I’m gonna get to the bottom of this, even if it takes me all night! The thief’s gonna do it again, ’cause they won’t bloom forever!”

* * *

The following morning, Angela leaned on the picket fence. Then she looked to Rosa’s window. After an entire night spent waiting for the thief behind the window, her buttocks sore, Rosa had meant to go to the bathroom, but when she saw Angela she froze. “Rosa! Rosa! What’s wrong with your garden? I see some roses missin’.” Rosa pushed the sash up and waved.

“Yes. Someone stole ’em. D’you know of anyone who’d do that?” Rosa frowned, for the question had not been just a question.

Angela smirked. “And why would I know?”

“Just wondered if you did,” Rosa said. She waved her goodbye, shut the window, and wobbled to the powder room beside the kitchen. “Angela, Angela... I know’t was you,” she whispered and flushed the toilet. “Why else would you look to my window and mention the flowers right away? You rotten hag!”

She poured a cup of coffee and limped to her seat by the window, planning to sit all day. When the night came, she pulled a thick woolen blanket from her couch and wrapped herself in it. With all lights turned off, she fell asleep, her head bobbing on her chest, the thick curtains pulled.

Toward midnight, the iron gate squeaked. Rosa opened her caked lids, lowered her reading glasses so she could see over them, and froze. Angela was wobbling into the courtyard with a canvas bag on her back, leaning on a cane. She glanced at the window, her eyes reflecting the front-door lantern.

Leaning on her cane, she cut a handful of roses, leaving leafless stumps. Without waiting, she unfurled the tie of her bag and dumped the roses into her canvas bag. She gripped her cane with both hands to stand, looked at the dark window, and shook her fist.

“I knew’t was you, Angela. I always wondered why they named you ‘Angela’ and not ‘Desdemona’! You just wait.” Rosa took a sip of coffee and wiped her thick lips with the back of her hand.

* * *

Rosa walked upstairs, warning all the portraits to watch for her next move. In the early morning, she pushed her stiff feet into gardening boots, wiggled her fingers into thick gloves, and dragged the rose pots one by one to the back of her townhouse. Her daughters, their husbands, and her grandchildren would come to visit by the end of the week, and she refused to let Angela destroy her surprise garden.

Gripping her cane, she wobbled to the front door, and she stepped down the limestone steps for the last pot. Angela appeared at the corner of the street, but Rosa chose to ignore her until she came closer.

“Hello, Rosa. How goes it? Did you find who took your roses?” The clogs made a horse-like clop on the sidewalk. Angela raised one eyebrow, one hand gripping the iron picket fence. “Really a shame people would do that.” Then she saw the roses had all but disappeared. “Rosa? What are you doin’? You don’t think someone’s gonna do it again?”

“Someone already did last night, but now they’ll have to walk through my house to get them!” said Rosa. She picked up the last flowerpot and placed it on the lowest step. Then she faced a distraught Angela. “How goes your garden?”

“It’s okay. It’s very small, but I got a few roses of my own. I know it’s hard for you to walk down there. I’ll take a picture and bring it.”

“It’s no harder for me than you,” said Rosa. Then she froze and creases deepened in her blowfish-like cheeks. “Say, Angela?”

“Yes?”

“Never mind the thief. The thief’s gonna be punished anyway, ’cause I hexed the roses.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Rosa. What’re you saying?” said Angela. She gripped the rail, and her nails dug into her palm.

“Well, the older I get, the more I believe in such things!” Rosa grinned as she sat on the lower step, leaning on the cane between her legs. She was lying. It had been a last-minute idea, but seeing Angela’s eyes open as wide as golf balls delighted her.

“So, what did you do?” Angela’s mouth displayed sparse yellow dangling teeth.

“I tied a red yarn with knots around one of the roses the thief stole. I said this as I tied the knots, like my grandma in Napoli would have: ‘With this knot I seal this hex, you shall not sleep nor rest; knots of anger, knots of hate bring discord to your fate, I bring you darkness and chaos, hex of anger, hex of hate, bring my thief down!’” Rosa laughed.

Angela’s face turned ashen. “God take pity on you!” She crossed herself and shortened her morning walk. “I’ll pray for you, Rosa. You shouldn’t use hexes, you’ll go to Hell for them. I’ll pray for you.”

Rosa watched Angela limp across the street. “Don’t worry Angela! You’ve got nothing to fear.”

* * *

Rosa remained in her upstairs bedroom over the following two days. From her reclining chair, she had a view of her backyard, where she had placed her rose pots. She rested confident that nobody would access her roses, and she had turned the security alarm on. “What a shame for Angela! How immature!”

She took a sketchbook and noted the blooming progress. With her old film camera, she took pictures, and she sketched from her bedroom window. She ate cookies and crackers she had upstairs, and she relished her “vacation” away from the recent emotions.

On the third day, having rested, she negotiated the long way downstairs, winking to the portraits in the stairwell that followed her every move. The sun was shining, and she opened the dark velvet curtains covering her living-room windows. She pushed all sashes up for fresh air, and she ran her hand through her short-cropped hair, imagining the long hair of her youth flowing in the breeze.

Horns were blowing in the street. Rosa saw a line of black cars, preceded by a hearse. People in the street stopped to look at the convoy. Then it turned the corner. “Well, the noise is gone, good riddance!” She thought nothing more of it, and the following day, her children came with their families. Rosa rushed them to the back garden, and they had a hearty breakfast by her pots of roses.

Since she had moved them, more had blossomed, and she let her two daughters cut some to take home. After all, she was not selfish. She just wanted to give her roses to whom she pleased! That day, in the evening, the family sipped coffee and tea in the living room, the windows open to the chirping birds, the warming sun rays, and a caressing breeze.

Angela limped by the townhouse and looked up, her eyelids drooping. She held the arm of an older man and, with her other arm, she leaned on the iron fence. “Hey, mama, isn’t that Angela?” asked her daughter, adjusting her glasses, held in check by her father’s bulbous nose. Strands of hair blew off her pudgy cheeks. “Mama, do you remember how we loved her pastries? We used to go there all the time with Daddy. That was so—”

“Got it, got it! No need to remind me, Carla.” Rosa lowered her reading glasses. “Angela, how goes it? Got a new boyfriend?”

“Mama!” Rosa’s daughter blushed like a blooming rose, and her mother smiled.

“Where’s Ricardo, your hubby?” Rosa asked.

But Angela sighed, then she nudged her companion. He looked at the happy little reunion in the living room, one flight of stairs above the street.

The old man took a white handkerchief and blew his nose. “My friend Ricardo slipped on Angela’s canvas bag a couple days ago. He knocked his head and bled to death.” He tugged on Angela’s arm, and the sad pair limped away under the silent stares of the Agnelli family.

“My condolences,” whispered Rosa. “I never meant to—”

“To what, Mama?” asked her daughter.

But Rosa remained silent, stunned by the sudden turn of events, guilt stealing her words.


Copyright © 2014 by Dimitrije Medenica

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