"My husband, Gino, is a fine man," Anna Maria was used to saying at any opportunity that presented itself. But on the day of his funeral, when his immortal soul was joined with that of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, Anna Maria began to refer to her now late husband as "the finest man who ever lived. "
At age 60, with five grown sons, Anna Maria was on her own.
"What do you mean you're going to sell the house?" her eldest asked incredulously, when she announced her decision to move into an apartment. "If you stay here, you'll have all this room to yourself."
The house where Anna Maria had raised her boys had three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen that could not accommodate a dishwasher. Gino had worked as a city manager throughout his career. He believed in efficient spending both on the municipal level and in the home.
Much to their surprise, Anna Maria did not ask her sons for their assistance in the selling of her house. Once it was sold, she signed a lease for an apartment on Sawtelle Boulevard. Her close friend, Theresa, came over to help her pack up her things. The two women knelt on the floor in the middle of the living room, armed with tissue paper, cardboard boxes, and adhesive tape.
"You need to stay active," Theresa said, wrapping a silver-plated clock. "Why don’t you go back to making wedding dresses?"
"I couldn't. I'm too out of practice."
"But you have a talent for it, and talent never goes away. Before you got married, every girl in the neighborhood came to you for her gown, including me."
"I just couldn’t," Anna Maria said in a low voice, "That was too long ago."
"What am I going to do with you?" Theresa said with exasperation.
"That's what Gino always used to say."
"Yes," Theresa said coldly, "I know."
Anna Maria truly was a phenomenal seamstress. Her mother had first taught her to sew when she was 5, and by the time she was 12, Anna Maria was a prodigy; bridal gowns became her specialty. The times she spent sewing with her mother were sweet. Anna Maria loved buttons best, especially those covered with silk.
"Someday you will make a wonderful wife," her mother told her, when Anna Maria was still in grade school. "Much better than I am at least."
"What do you mean, Mama?" Anna Maria asked, holding a crystal bead up to the light.
"Your father isn't always so pleased with me."
Anna Maria knew this to be true. Her father was always angry about something her mother did, or failed to do.
As soon as Anna Maria got married, she understood that her duty was to keep house, and not to make wedding gowns. When her sons came along, however, her skills with needle and thread came in handy. She made all of the boys' clothing — school clothes, play clothes, and dress clothes for special occasions.
"This is hard," Anna Maria said to Theresa, looking at her collection of knickknacks. "Each thing I own sparks a memory. I can’t take everything. How am I supposed to decide what to take along, and what to leave behind?" She picked up a gilt-framed photograph of herself and her husband taken on their wedding day. Anna Maria had worn a gown of her own making, while Gino had worn a morning coat. With her index finger, she gently touched the picture, fingering over the once perfect complexion she had had as a bride. Then, with the same finger, she reached up and touched the right side of her forehead and felt a familiar scar. Anna Maria gently placed the photograph in a box, along with other fragile items she would be taking with her.
The first morning that she awoke in her new apartment, it took Anna Maria a moment to figure out where she was.
"Dear me!" she said aloud, sitting up in her bed and putting her hand to her chest. Once she got her bearings, she put on her bathrobe and walked to the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee. She was about to open the cupboard door when she heard a strange sound. It sounded like whimpering. At first she thought it was a dog; then she thought it might be a child. She walked over to the window and looked down toward the set of apartments across the driveway. Standing in the driveway was a young woman who appeared to be in the very late stages of pregnancy. The woman was facing her own apartment, pleading toward her screen door in an exhausted whine.
"Please let me in. I've been out here for 20 minutes; I need to sit down."
Anna Maria threw on her clothes and shoes. She hurried down the stairwell and onto the driveway. As she approached the woman, she could see a young man on the other side of the screen door. His arms were folded; a confident smile was on his face, like that of a general delighting in the surrender of his enemy.
"Can I help you?" Anna Maria asked the woman. "Do you need somewhere to sit down? You can sit down in my apartment if you like." The woman ignored Anna Maria, and just kept crying, begging the man to let her in so that she could sit down. Anna Maria asked again:
"Is there someone I can call for you? Would you like to use my telephone?"
"No, thank you," the woman said.
Anna Maria looked at the man. He did not look at her, but kept smiling at the woman instead. Anna Maria wished that she were a man so that she could tear the screen door open and beat the man to death.
With her heart pounding, Anna Maria walked past the woman and up to the screen door so that her nose almost touched it. She looked directly into the man’s face; his smile disappeared. Despite her breathlessness, Anna Maria's face had turned to stone, her soul having disappeared to some long-forgotten place.
"What is your name, young lady?" Anna Maria asked, addressing herself to the woman but not removing her gaze from the man.
"Angela," she replied, sniffling into a handkerchief
"And where is your mother?"
"She lives about 20 miles from here."
"I'll take you to her."
"No," the woman said, placing her hand on her protruding belly. "She says my place is with my husband."
"I should have guessed."
Anna Maria and the man stared at one another for a long time. Suddenly, a smile appeared on her face. It was the same triumphant smile that the man had borne moments earlier.
"You're coning with me, Angela," she said.
"What the hell?" the man said, a look of anger coming over his face. Anna Maria whispered something that he could not hear.
"What did you say?" he asked.
In a quiet voice, Anna Maria said to the man, "Come closer." He put his ear up to the screen, straining to hear. She whispered a phrase that Gino had used so effectively with her throughout their marriage.
"I will bury you."
The man jerked his head back. The expression of wicked delight on Anna Maria’s face rendered him speechless.
She wheeled around, and took the young woman’s hand.
"Come with me, dear," she said warmly, and led her across the driveway. "Everything is going to be all right." As though she were a child, the young woman leaned her head on Anna Maria’s shoulder. They slowly ascended the stairs, and opened the door to Anna Maria’s apartment. She helped the woman to sit down on her couch.
"But I want Peter," Angela said, renewing her tears.
"Because I love him; because I need him."
"My dear," Anna Maria said softly, touching Angela’s face. "Why would you want to live with a man who humiliates you like that?"
"Because it's my own fault. I make him mad. I can tell you about the time I ..."
"Stop!" Anna Maria said firmly. "It makes no difference what you did, or did not do."
"Of course it does."
"Look at me," she said, taking Angela by the shoulders. "Would you, in your wildest dreams, ever think of locking a pregnant woman out of her home just so you could watch her beg to be let back in?"
Angela looked at the floor. "No, I guess I wouldn’t " After a moment, she added, "So you're saying I don't have to stay with him?"
Suddenly, a loud banging came from behind the door.
"Oh God, oh God," Angela said, putting her hand over her heart.
"Stop it!" Anna Maria said. "He's not getting in here." She walked to the door and looked through the peep-hole. "What!" she shouted, in the loudest voice she'd ever heard herself use.
"My wife’s in there," yelled the voice from beyond the door. "Tell her to come home right now."
"She’s not going home, ever."
"Listen, you meddling old bitch ..."
"You have exactly three minutes to say your piece through this door, because that is exactly how long it takes for the police in this neighborhood to respond to a 911 call. I know that for a fact." Anna Maria picked up the telephone which was sitting on a nearby end table.
"There's a man trying to break into my apartment. I live at 2625 Sawtelle Boulevard, #8." She hung up the phone and shouted through the door again: "Now you have two minutes and 45 seconds. Come on, say your piece. Spit it out!"
"I want to hear it from her," Peter shouted.
Anna Maria looked at Angela, whose eyes expressed terror.
"Come on, dear," Anna Maria said gently, "It's OK." Angela strained to get off of the couch, and walked slowly to the door.
"I ... I'm not coming home," she said quietly, through the door.
"Well then, you'd better get used to living with that old hag for the rest of your life, because no other man is gonna want you."
Angela burst into tears again and hurried back to the couch. A police siren became audible in the distance.
"Goodbye, young man," Anna Maria said through the door with a cheery voice.
Anna Maria walked purposefully into her bedroom, and came out with a large carpet bag. She set it on the floor and knelt beside it. From deep within the bag she pulled bolts of cotton fabric, assorted needles and spools of thread in every color.
"Do you know how to sew?" she asked her young friend, who was lying on the couch, clutching her handkerchief. Angela sat up slowly.
"I know how to sew a little," she said, wiping her eyes. "I took a semester of home-ec in high school."
"Have you ever sewn baby clothes?"
"No, I guess I haven't."
"Then I'll teach you how, like my mother taught me. Maybe even a little better."