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Wash Day

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Wash Day

        “Enough for it to feel as it should.”
        “How much water then?”
        “It is a dry day. Your flour may want more water.”
        Maria sticks a piece of paper into the wood oven, and when it comes out the color of chestnuts, she puts the bread in to bake. She drenches a slice from the first baked loaf with olive oil brought over by a brother who runs a long-shore ship from the Bay of Naples, salts it, and gives it to Emma. The herbed bread sinks like a stone in Emma's stomach, making her head spin, making her forget all hunger for days. Maria sells her bread to the single miners, makes sure the newest school teacher gets her share, gives away slices sprinkled with sugar to the Italian children who hang over her fence. Once a month, Maria sends Emma down to stop the train and trade bread for ice and lemons with the Norfolk and Western man. I'll give you the ice if you tell me your name,” he always says, and when she challenges, Tell me your name first, he teases, Caleb Sypher. I'll bet you loved ciphering in school. Are you a school teacher?” After the baking is done, Maria squeezes lemons over the ice and wild stevia, making lemonade that is cold, grassy and sweet.
        But it's still wash day, and Emma's mother's face pinches over the dirty wash water cooling in the tub. Her slender, piano player fingers are chapped, red and knobby, her stiff thumbs turning inward with rheumatism. Emma has been wondering lately when her own hands will look this old. Her fingers have stiffened from the cold, and her back aches from carrying water-heavy wash to the line all morning. Her arms feel rubbery, and she shivers in her damp dress. Her mind has emptied from the long, quiet hours of washing, filling again with the single desire of keeping the laundry clean until it is dry enough to take down from the line.
        Her mother's mind darkens with the rinse water, and she tells the story of her Aunt Maria's unfortunate past, calling her sister-in-law “the siren” because she once hennaed her hair and hung her nightgown on the line on a Friday night, luring a Sicilian miner to her bed. They ran off to Detroit the next morning to look for work in the Ford factory.
         “She was never careful enough about her comportment with men,” her mother says. “She got into some kind of trouble up there and came home alone.”
         “They always come back. There's no family up there, and your family is your home, and if it's your home, even working in the camps is better than doing something anywhere else.”
        Now, there is no trace of red left in Maria's dull brown hair, and she lives in her parents' house, renting rooms to single miners and caring for her aging father, a tiny man with hair shocked white from sunstroke and dark, ashy skin. His birth certificate lost long ago, nobody knows how old he is, and he sits all day in a rocker on the front porch with a water glass of the dark, young wine he makes in the shed. While the bread bakes, Emma likes to sit next to him. Unsure of who Emma is, he calls her Nina, holds her hand as he talks in the old language of meeting Garibaldi, warns of dragons that live beneath the Straits of Messina. When he tires of talking, he gently pinches one of Emma's thick arms, murmuring, “C'era una volta,” until he falls asleep. Emma always thought he was saying, “I don't wanna” until Maria assured her that he meant, once upon a time.