Alojz yoked Zorka, his spinster daughter, to marriage as he harnessed his mule to a plow. Smoke curled from Alojz’s pipe and billowed from the chimney as he played chess with his neighbor.
“Roman, what could I do? No man would marry my Zorka. Her brothers say she’s ugly.”
His neighbor moved a black bishop. Roman muttered, “In our day, an ugly wife was a blessing. A husband did not worry about being cheated. If she cooks, clean and birth sons was enough. Today men want what they see in American movies, blonde with long legs and big boobs.” Roman stuffed fruit from the table into his shirt and pranced around the kitchen mimicking the women in American movies. Watching the performance, Alojz howled.
The fruit bounced to the floor. Roman threw up his arms and sighed. “Maybe the proxy marriage won’t stick.”
“You saw the priest,” Alojz affirmed.
“It’s not right what you did, marrying her to an old man to fill your purse, even if she is ugly. It should have been her choice, her sacrifice.”
“What’s done is done. It’s for the best.” Alojz moved his white queen into a defensive position.
“For you.” Roman’s lip quivered.
Alojz flipped the table. Nobles and clerics toppled. Pawns spun. “It’s none of your business”
Banging his fist on Alojz’s door as he left, Roman spat words as if he was spiting nails, “Thirty pieces of silver.”
Day folded into night. He watched the light escaping from his daughter’s bedroom. In his dream, Alojz was rich man.
* * *
The balding rooster crowed. Fog clung to the shoulders of the Dinaric Alps. Grabbing sweater and kerchief, Zorka left her girlhood bedroom. Morning frost crystalized on the wheelbarrow. The barn had grown weary with age. Red blotches of paint pocked the door which dangled by rusty hinges. She inhaled the sweet smell of fresh hay. White hens nested in boxes. The mule grinded its oats as Zorka passed its stall. Spotting a piglet hiding in the straw, Zorka whispered, “Bela”. One watery, beady eye looked out. The squealing piglet wobbled and collapsed in her lap. She stroked its rubbery snout, petted its bristly body. Bela nudged a green apple from her sweater and nibbled it to the core. Returning to the house, she fried peppery sausages and eggs, baked salt- rising bread. She slid yolks spotted with paprika from frying pan onto their plates. It was the last breakfast Zorka would cook for her father and brothers. She left the breakfast dishes stacked in the sink. It was independence day. She was going to America.
Zorka snatched the solitary piece of luggage standing by the door and followed her brother to the car. Her father slowly closed the car door. She looked forward. Tears flowed from her stony eyes. The mountains of Croatia gave way to the flatlands of Queens, New York. Neighbors debated Alojz’s decision. Some felt he did the right thing. Others agreed with Roman that Alojz put money above family.
* * *
The white house loomed before her. Studying the crumpled paper, she compared addresses. Taped under the bell was the name Fausto Bankovic. A small woman, wearing thick makeup and gobs of blue eye shadow, slid the chain lock and cracked the door open. The woman standing outside looked like a giant statue from Easter Island. Zorka followed the woman into the parlor. Her keen eyes panned the room. Nailed to the wall was a frameless Jesus. A golden figurine of Buddha danced on the entertainment console. A taxidermic buzzard with wings spread was suspended on a perch from the ceiling. Above the crushed velvet sofa hung a crooked oil painting of the Bankovic daughters flanked by their spindly father. The painting mirrored their present seating arrangement.
“Sit down,” Margit, the youngest daughter, tweeted.
Zorka sunk into the sofa. Fausto with a handkerchief cleaned his round wire-rim glasses to get a clear view of his bride. Adjusting his bow tie, he flashed a jagged smile. Zorka could tell he had been handsome man in his youth. He had thick white hair and a trim goatee. His dark eyes were unreadable, and kindness was absent from his face.
“These are my beautiful daughters, Magdalena, Marta and Margit.” Fausto beamed.
“I am Zorka, your father’s wife, from Croatia.” She placed her hand over her heart. One of the daughters giggled. Zorka’s stomach grumbled. Fausto leaned forward and pointed to Magdalena. “Go get some refreshments, and show my wife around the kitchen.”
A piece of cardboard covered the kitchen window. Tomato sauce dotted the walls. On the stove, a cast iron frying pan collected grease.
“That’s the dishwasher, but it’s on the fritz.” Margit opened the dishwasher far enough for Zorka to peer in.
“What does on the fritz mean?”
“You know. It’s broken. I asked Papa to get it fixed before you came, but he said it was cheaper to get a wife.” Zorka watched as Magdalena prepared egg sandwiches, sliced cheese, and forked gherkins from a jar. “Do me a favor, grab a handful of napkins and the bottle of Cola on the counter and follow me.” Old newspapers, magazines, unopened mail was piled on the dining and kitchen tables. Marta set up five snack tables in front of the television. They watched reruns of Father Knows Best.
* * *
After lunch, the Bankovic daughters conducted a house tour. Zorka followed them down a long hallway. Margit stopped in front of the boarder’s door pointing. “He’s a Jew,” she whispered.
Zorka’s eyebrow arched. “I did not know we had boarders.”
“Just one,” Marta grinned.
“He won’t bother you. He’s mostly at the library, a rabbinical student.” Magdalena folded her arms.
“It’s not true. He annoyed mother plenty.” Margit quipped.
“Quiet down. He’ll hear you. Mother complained that he put his smelly food in our refrigerator, but Papa said we needed the money and that was that.” Magdalena led the tour.
Zorka understood. “What’s his name?”
“Seth,” they chimed.
The porch had been converted into a bedroom. “This is Papa’s room. It’s too much for him to climb stairs now, “Marta declared. Zorka spied a wedding picture on the dresser.
Pointing to the picture, “Who is this?”
“Our mother and father, mother was a great beauty,” Marta said waiting for validation.
Zorka said nothing. She knew exactly where to put the statue of The Infant of Prague that was a wedding gift from her father.
“We don’t need to see the second floor rooms. They’re for guests and sleepovers for the grandchildren,” Magdalena said.
“There are grandchildren!”
“Yes,” Magdalena and Marta said.
“But not me, I’m single.” Margit chirped.
The tour ended in the garage. Magdalena jiggled the key until the door opened. Squeezed into the tiny garage was an enormous family car.
“Papa loves this car because it’s worth a lot of bucks,” Margit stated.
“What are bucks?” Zorka asked.
“Dollars.” Margit rolled her eyes.
“Kuna.” Magdalena corrected.
Zorka nodded. “Why so much bucks?”
“It’s a 1974 Ambassador, the last time AMC produced that model,” Magdalena crowed.
“Who drives the car?” Zorka asked.
Margit smiled. “You will.”
“I do not have license.” Zorka protested.
“You’ll need to drive to the supermarket and to doctor appointments,” Marta said.
Magdalena interrupted. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Zorka nodded although not grasping the idiom.
The tour ended, and the daughters returned to their homes.
Fausto headed toward the bedroom. “Come Zorka.”
Her husband mounted her. Zorka looked at jeweled crown on the Infant of Prague. As Fausto did his business, she remembered her mother’s words, the cross before the crown. Fausto attributed his vigor to a little blue pill. Fausto held out the palm of his hand, which contained two more pills. “Very expensive, but they do the trick.” Zorka was reminded of the magic beans in a fairy tale. She thought this time her husband’s stinginess paid off.
* * *
Zorka tore open the large Burpee envelope; seed packets spilled onto the dining room table. She took packets of peppers, tomatoes, squash, lettuce, and arranged them like a deck of cards for solitaire. In the early morning, after Fausto’s breakfast, she prepared her vegetable garden.
Seth’s voice thundered above her as Zorka weeded. “’And God said, Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.’” He gave her a hand. She wiped a towel across her brow. “Those are the Lord’s words, Rabbi, I do not know much about the Bible.”
He folded his yarmulke and placed it in his satchel. “Mrs. Bankovic, I’m not a rabbi yet, and I don’t know anything about farming. I’m a city boy.”
“You can call me Zorka”. She wiped her hands on her apron.
“Call me Seth.” She shook his hand as if she was working a pump. Her grip was manly.
In the evenings after tending the garden, the unlikely couple would sit close in lawn chairs, sip lemonade and talk about the Lord’s work.
* * *
Fausto noticed his wife left an occasional dinner plate outside the boarder’s room. Like a peeping tom, he watched them in the garden. One evening, he strolled into the garden and pulled up a lawn chair between them. He puffed on a Tiparillo cigar; his dark eyes focused on Seth.
“Will you graduate from the seminary soon?” Fausto smoke formed a halo above Seth’s head.
“In two years.”
“I guess you’ll move out then, get an apartment and a bride.” Fausto slapped Zorka’s thigh. “Rabbis can have wives.”
“Yes, of course, we don’t take a vow of celibacy but just one wife.” Seth chuckled.
“Will you still board with us?”
“I don’t know yet. In a way, we all are boarders.”
Fausto snuffed out his cigar in a potted plant, folded his lawn chair and made his way to the house. Zorka called after him. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Fausto flailed his arms in the air.
When Fausto and Zorka were in bed, he was annoyed. “Why can’t that man give a straight answer to a simple question? He talks in parables.”
“So did Jesus.”
“And Jesus was a Jew.” He stressed the last word.
Zorka propped up her pillow. “Fausto, maybe you are little jealous.”
“Of Seth, that’s ridiculous. I just want things in order.” He grumbled reaching on his night table for the blue pill.
Zorka prepared for his assault.
* * *
Every Sunday, Zorka dutifully prepared and served the family meal. She would eat alone in the kitchen. After dinner, the family gathered around the table to play Pinochle. They played partners. Fausto paired up with Margit. While Zorka scrubbed pots and pans, she heard meaningless words like marriage, flush, meld.
The grandchildren jumped on the sofa, tumbled on the floor, broke knickknacks and spilled soda on the carpet. Zorka said nothing. Fausto smiled and called them “rug rats.” She sat in her garden and looked at the folded picture of her family she carried in her apron pocket. When she returned to the house, everyone was gone. Fausto sat in his recliner. Zorka scrubbed the carpet. “Where did everyone go?”
“They went home. Tomorrow is Monday, back to work. “
“I work,” Zorka said.
Fausto flipped his hand. “They have important jobs.”
“What are their important jobs?”
“Magdalena’s husband is an assistant manager at Packers, Marta’s husband is a bank teller at Citibank and Margit is a cosmetologist.”
The only one that sounded important was Margit’s job. Zorka said, “I work; I am important.”
“Not enough to earn money.” The conversation ended.
* * *
Fall arrived suddenly speckling the garden with a palette of color, swelling the pumpkins that drooped to the ground. Unexpectedly late in the season, Fausto passed away. The service was simple. The daughters wailed like a Greek chorus, but contained their grief when the will was read. All assets were left to Fausto’s daughters who said, “Blood is thicker than water.” Zorka was penniless. Seth gave her money to return home and promised to tend the garden until the house was sold. Zorka packed her one suitcase, carefully wrapping the Infant of Prague between her clothing.
When she arrived home, the sickle moon was pinned in the night sky. Smoke puffed from the chimney. She opened the door and heard the familiar sound of snoring. The chessboard was on the kitchen table for Wednesday’s game. As Zorka lay in her single bed, she thought, Tomorrow I’ll make a big breakfast for my family.
* * *
Rosemary Biggio was born, raised and overeducated in Brooklyn, N.Y., but left the “Big Apple” for the Garden State where she resides with a roommate and Cocker Spaniel pup, Frankie. Recently retired from teaching, she is cooking fiction and nonfiction. Simmering in the pots are meaty morsels of character, a stock of old plots, snippets of dialogue and dashes of metaphor. Taste the roux seasoned with style.