Children of Liberty(4)

By: Paullina Simons

“I’m Harold,” he said, leaning forward, extending his. “Harry. Pleased to meet—”

But before he could finish, or touch her, Salvo stepped between them, his back to his sister. “I’m Salvatore Attaviano,” he said, shaking Harry’s hand. “Gina’s older brother.” She had no choice but to retreat, tutting with frustration, and pinching her ridicolo brother hard between his shoulder blades.

“I’d like some bread, Salvo,” she said with irritation. “Would that be all right?”

Salvo broke off a piece from Harry’s loaf and handed it to her. She grabbed it from him. “This is our mother, Maria,” he told the two men. “But everyone calls her Mimoo.”

“Even her children?” Ben smiled.

“Especially her children,” Gina said, moving this way and that.

Ben brought some bread to Mimoo. “Where are you headed?” he asked. “Can Harry and I help you, take you somewhere? We have a carriage waiting.”

Mimoo nodded vigorously from her sitting position on the wall. “I can’t walk, my ankles are swollen. Salvo, tell him a ride would be most welcome.”

“We need to get to a train station,” Salvo said. “We are going to Lawrence.”

“Lawrence!” Ben exclaimed. “Whatever for?”

Gina began to speak, to explain the significance of Lawrence, but Salvo cut her off. “That is where we are going. What is it to you?”

Ben shrugged, unprovoked. “It’s nothing to me,” he said. “E niente. Just trying to, um, aiutare.” They bickered in two broken languages.

“Help me by pointing out the train station,” retorted Salvo.

“All right. But you’ll have to sleep at the station. Last train was at four.” Harry nudged him in the back with his fist and rolled his eyes. Ben didn’t glance back. Everyone looked up at the clock tower downtown. Four fifteen, the clock read. Salvo swore not so quietly under his breath.

“How about this,” Ben said in an animated voice. “Go tomorrow. Tonight you stay at one of our apartments.” He shook his head when he saw Salvo’s face. “No charge. As our guests.”

“Why would you do that?” Salvo asked with suspicion. “What do you get?”

Harry kept knocking into Ben’s shoulder as if to stop him from talking. Ben stepped away. “Harry, it’s fine. It’s just one night.” He smiled at Gina, still half hidden behind Salvo. “My friend and I manage several apartment buildings near here in an up-and-coming area, full of Italians like yourselves. We rent apartments, and then help you find jobs, loan you a few dollars.”

If Salvo’s eyes had been any narrower, they’d be slit shut. “Why do you do it? You do it like … caritá?”

“A little bit, yes, indeed!”

“We don’t need your caritá,” Salvo said. “We are not povera.”

“Then it’s not charity,” Ben said, just as firmly. “No, sir. It’s a loan is what it is. We lend you the money, and you pay us back when you find work.”

“We don’t borrow money,” Salvo said. “And never from strangers.”

Ben looked like he’d been outplayed. Gina shook Salvo’s sleeve. It had become muggy, and everyone was wet with perspiration. The sun wasn’t shining, yet it was stifling hot, and the air wasn’t moving. At sea it had been cool, with a breeze. Now it felt like the coal kilns were on all at once. Gina would not acknowledge the oppressive standstill air, the drops of sweat trickling from her forehead. One drifted into her mouth. She licked it surreptitiously, trying to act cooler. She caught Harry’s amused yet distant eye. Both men wore suits and the suits seemed to be of the same good quality. But for some reason, disheveled Harry looked like he was born in a suit, while tidy Ben looked like his had been given to him.

“Leave them alone, Benji,” Harry said, motioning away his friend. “They’ll be all right.” He pointed to another nearby family of five or six resting with their belongings. “Let’s try them.”

“No!” Gina whirled to her mother beseechingly and to her brother accusingly, yanking on him, stepping in front of him. “It’s just for one night, Salvo,” she whispered vehemently. “Don’t be such a ninny.” She wasn’t above bullying him with her height if the situation called for it. And clearly the situation was screaming for it now. If Salvo had his way, these two nice well-dressed gentlemen would be helping some other family.

Salvo shook his head. “No, Gia. It’s one night too long. We can’t repay them.”