“Mary Fleck,” “Something Out of Nothing,” and “In Rimini”

mary fleck

Mary Fleck

Once, in another time, I traveled with my parents

In the 1951 Ford sedan to a distant part of the city.

You could call it a city, but everyone then

Referred to it only as a town.

Even in the far reaches of my dreams, the city

I inhabit had no place like this.  I knew the place

By the sound of train cars connecting, the coupling of boxcars.

When a locomotive leaves the station, there is the sound

Of a chain, as one car pulls against another, and another,

Until the entire train groans to pull itself

Along the steel track. The railroad grade is a levee

To hold back the floodwaters from the west.

All night the diesel engines struggle to pull their loads,

Their miles of succession, off to other railyards

In places like Tehachapi, or Barstow, where cars are switched

All night, cars banging against each other, pulling away

Following behind locomotives spewing heavy black-smoke

Straining huge masses of metal battling inertia.

My father took me to the great roundhouse on the tracks

South of town, to see the behemoth railway engines

Parked. Steam-powered, oil-fueled, poised with fronts

Of light, great beacons to shine on the rails, pointed inward

To the one track leading out. The roundhouse, dark and damp,

With only the heat from the engines to warm the place.

Men wore striped coveralls and small caps. Their hands

Grown large and strong from the work of using wrenches,

Keeping train engines running, blackened by soot

And grease, lungs darkened by the engine exhaust.

I was too young to know where I was,

Or why.  Yet I remember my father, his youthful wonder,

In the dark in the massive brick roundhouse

The same darkness mixed with gloom that he knew

As night, as a boy growing up, in an upstairs brownstone

In the Charlestown ghetto of Italians and Jews.

The great doors that released the trains were the same doors

That opened outward toward the light, and into the day.

To the cobbled streets from the darkened stables

Where his father hitched the dray horses to pull a wagon

Of coal to a hundred coal-chutes in basements, row upon

Wet, raw row, for a source of heat in winter.

The black dust, smudged faces, and soot covered from shoveling,

Coal to apartments where families huddled near radiators

For warmth.  The wool coats they wore made them look like refugees,

Not twenty years off the boat from the old country,

Not leaving behind the thick accents, or abandoning

Old superstitions and rituals, in exchange for that one

Sunny morning when the sky is clear, light abundant, when a wind

Picks up from the Charles River and carries in the new day.

In the photograph, they've gathered at the train station.

The adolescent boys handle the baggage, all the belongings

Stowed and on board.  The girls wear ribbons and heavy coats.

Pa is there, if you look deeply into his eyes, you see

The doubt, and same fear he knew when he arrived,

As this is the day when the family departs for California,

For his health. A warmer climate to stem the cough

And emphysema that wracks and debilitates his weakened body

From years of breathing coal dust. The year was 1945,

The older boys were discharged from the Army, and Air Corp,

Gone to a place in California, not really a city, a military base.

A three-day train ride, in narrow bunks and thick curtains,

Cramped, deprived quarters, little sleep or comfort, a scenery

That seemed unchanging. Mary came too, a single woman in her twenties,

A cousin, a distant relative from the village.  When she arrived

In the west she quickly married a railroad man, who wore a suit

To work under his coveralls, a precisely tied tie, immaculately

Ironed shirt. His tweed three-piece suit he bought from a tailor

In the east.  But his shoes betrayed him, they were oil stained,

Cracked, and worn, out of place with the suit, but fit

Naturally with his grease marked, soiled striped uniform.

Mary took in ironing to feed the children, four boys, three girls;

The boys, sneak-thieves, in trouble with the law, the girls,

Nuns yet to be, with their rosaries and missals.

The girls helped with the laundry, and cooked.  When Fleck

(his first name and last) walked home two blocks from the railyard

In the dark for dinner, it was ready on the table and waiting.

When our car pulled up to the small house there were no lights,

As if no one at home, except one table lamp Mary did her work under.

But there were freshly ironed shirts hanging from the molding

Over the doors of the dark living room.  The shirts were white flags

Signaling surrender to so much history that needed to be undone.

Something Out of Nothing

To my Italian grandmother’s credit,

My mother, that scrawny girl my father married,

Who, grandma said, was too skinny to bear children,

Used to say of her mother-in-law:

“She could make something out of nothing.”

Of grandma’s ability to feed a family of ten

Three meals a day, plus do laundry,

And run the household

With very little food, money, or support.

Her husband was a coal and ice man,

And by 1928, she had six sons, ranging in age

From eleven to newborn, a daughter

In the middle, a daughter yet to arrive.

They lived in a three-bedroom tenement,

In a Charlestown neighborhood of Boston,

All the boys slept in one room.

They came by the train

To Fresno, California, in 1945,

For grandpa’s declining health,

Suffering from emphysema.

Her four oldest sons gone off

To Europe to fight in the war.

Three children were living at home,

One was the sole support of the family.

She cooked three meals a day

In her pintsized kitchen,

For anyone who happened to be there.

“Mangia,” she would say. “Mangiari.”

Five years after grandfather died,

Grandma and her baby girl,

Aunt Theresa, the year she turned 18

And graduated from Fresno High School,

Got on an airplane and flew to Italy.

Spent the summer of 1955, visiting

Grandmother’s older brother and his family,

In grandma’s hometown of Rutigliano,

A suburb of southeastern Bari,

The Apula region, on the Adriatic Sea,

In the southern part of Italy.

That memorable summer,

Aunt Theresa fell in love

With a handsome young Italian doctor

Who wanted to marry her.

Grandma said No, no marriage

Unless he came to America to live.

Apparently unwilling to do that,

Aunt Theresa and the doctor parted,

She returned home from Italy

Unmarried at 18 and bittersweet,

With nothing out of something.

Uncle Jimmie remodeled the kitchen

While grandma was away that season,

Put down new linoleum on the floor,

New plumbing in the kitchen sink.

The decals of an ample fruit-basket,

And a horn-of-plenty, on the refrigerator

Door, was a reminder of the old kitchen.

When I stayed with her on weekends,

In her smelling of new paint kitchen

She would make stars and butter,

Star pasta, with clarified butter,

Salt and pepper; both delicious

And filling and came from nowhere.

That, I’ll always remember.

In Rimini

Signore Zambano, the pig castrator

Carried out essential work.

He was passionate and respected

In the Emelia Romagna region,

From the hillsides of Couragnano,

To the plains of Pandana.

Boar taint, a smell of roasted pork

Comes from uncastrated pigs,

And renders the meat inedible.

Holding the pig between the legs,

Testicles raised to the surface of the flesh,

He lobbed with a curved knife blade.

He was fast and made no errors,

Castrating up to  300 pigs a day.

At Piazza Tre Martiri, in the shadows

Of the Tower of Santa Colombia, after twilight,

Signore Zambano chose one girl of Rimini.

Escorted her over the bridge of Istria stone,

A Roman bridge, built in 20 A.D.,

On five semicircular arches,  two emperors,

Augustus and Tiberius, in the town of Rimini.

And on the path to his rustic home,

Near the road junction of the Via Flaminia,

And the Via Aemelia, leading to Piacenza.

Where after crossing the Rubicon,

Caesar made his appeal to the legions.

King Pepin gave the city to the Holy See.

In the darkness of his singular room,

With the same surgical skill he used,

And light through an open window,

The philanderer took each one to his bed.

Once, he left a poor idiot-girl

From Hadrian’s Arch of Augustus,

Pregnant. Womenfolk of Rimini

Called the baby the “devil’s child.”

About the Author

Stephen Barile

Stephen Barile, a Fresno, California native, educated in the public schools, attended Fresno City College, Fresno Pacific University, and California State University, Fresno. His poems have appeared in numerous publications, in both print and on-line. Stephen Barile taught writing at Madera College, and CSU Fresno. He lives in Fresno, CA.