Updated: Jan 10
A cold front had suddenly blown in from Canada is what they were saying. I threw on a dark wool sweater and the blue stocking cap my mother had knitted with an ochre coloured silk scarf hanging loosely about my neck. I asked myself if maybe I should dress more seductively but instead decided to be conservative. On top of the worsening weather, the war news wasn’t good, a big battle raging someplace in Europe, ‘The Bulge’ the papers were calling it, but why that name I hadn’t a clue. Not a cause for dieting, certainly.
Candida was her name. The flower shop girl. The one who’d so unexpectedly inserted herself into this novel, the novel of my life, that is.
“I love the name Candida. Where’d you get it?”
“My father picked out the name when I was born. He happened to be reading Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ at the time. You know, ‘Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possible?’ I guess he was kind of a cockeyed optimist. Still is. We argue constantly.”
“I can relate to that.”
“Well, it was either that or ‘Cunégonde’. She was in love with Candide. Can you imagine?”
“It sounds like a social disease.”
“Yeah, it does. Okay. My turn now. How’d you get the name Ginger?”
“Well, actually it’s just a nickname. My real name is Erma. Erma Smith. You can’t get any plainer than that.”
“So where did the Ginger come from?”
“My husband was enamoured of Ginger Rogers, the dancer. He’d seen all her movies and fancied himself as her dance partner, so he started calling me Ginger whenever we made love. I guess it just kind of stuck after a while. I didn’t mind. When we got married, he wrote the name on the license.”
“Oh. I guess you’re married, then?” There was a tinge of disappointment in her voice at my casual statement of a fact that seemed to have altered the soft tinkling nature of her speech; a negation of some as yet undefined expectation, hinting at premature closure.
“No. I’m a widow. Henry Martin was killed last year during the Normandy landings. So far, I’ve gotten only one telegram and nothing more. No personal effects, no pension, no kiss-my-ass. Nothing.”
All of a sudden, I felt the weight of today’s headlines on my heart. The manufactured low casualty figures and heavy enemy losses, the optimism and fanfare that the war would soon be over, the patriotic jingoism. I’d been suppressing any feelings of bereavement or loss for a good half year now. Indulging in grief was unproductive, I told myself. Get past it. Move on. I’d moved on, I continued to remind myself, repeating the advice over and over again like a mantra.
Candida reached across the table and covered my hands with hers like she’d done in the flower shop when I tried to pay for the little cranesbill. A rush of warmth flowed up my arms into my chest. I felt my nipples harden inside my sweater. I’d not worn a bra that day. All my undergarments were stuffed inside a soiled pillowcase in the bathroom; not even any panties under the woollen skirt that chafed now and promised an annoying rash. I was wet, and began to soak the soft, upholstered seat of the chair as we sat there drinking jasmine tea while a couple of fortune cookies stared up at us from a china plate in a chop suey joint around the corner from the flower shop.
“That’s sad, Ginger. I’m very sorry. You must be awful lonely.”
“I’m okay. I’m getting over it now. Got myself a room over on 167th Street and a part-time job with a publisher’s agent. I do a little writing too; short stories mostly. Working on a novel. Used to teach high school English back in Tucson before we married. I’ll be twenty-six this year. Well, now that’s a mouthful, isn’t it? The whole story of my life.”
Candida just sat there, quietly studying my face while saying nothing. Her blue-green eyes were boring a hole in my soul. I was beginning to feel self-conscious and slightly uncomfortable, nervously shifting my unclad bottom on the seat.
“Hey. Let’s open our fortune cookies, shall we?” I suggested, trying to break the gloomy spell. “Let’s see what my cookie says.”
‘Something you lost will soon turn up.’
“How about that! Okay, now you open yours.”
Without another word, Candida took the brittle, folded cookie shell in her fingers and cracked it open like a large hollow nut. She began to laugh, then tears came streaming down both our faces.
‘Today you will meet the love of your life. Or maybe not. I’m just a cookie.’
So far, I knew no more about this girl than that she was named after a famous French novel. Still, there’d be a moist stain on the soft seat of the chair when we left the restaurant together, arm-in-arm, but I didn’t care.
Ginger cranked the typewriter carriage a few more strokes to eject the sheet from the roller then folded the paper and stuffed it inside the cover of her diary. She inserted another sheet and tapped out her shopping list in the top left quadrant of the paper: Lysol, toilet tissue, deodorant.
She then gathered up her soiled items of clothing from a heap on the bathroom floor and stuffed them into the pillow case, placing a nearly empty box of detergent powder alongside. Ivory Flakes, it said on the front label, pure soap to gently wash away the stains. She threw her worn woollen coat over her nakeness and buttoned up the front, then slipped on a pair of black pumps and headed off to the coin laundry.
Excerpted from The Cranesbill, copyright 2018, Francesco Rizzuto. Download sample chapters at www.francescorizzuto.com
Currently seeking beta readers for this unpublished novel. Please contact me via my web page at www.francescorizzuto.com/contact