Have Mercy on Us
– Fierce Fiction by Lisa Cupolo –
“Ali.” Franco said, “Come look at this matching stripped sweater with the dungarees.” He pointed at the screen. Striped, not stripped, but she no longer corrected his English. Franco had lived in Scarborough, the Toronto suburb, more than 20 years now. He’d emigrated from Berlin when the wall came down. She admired his ability to embrace Canada, similar to the way her father had, when she was a child and they’d left Warsaw, just the two of them, with only 500 zloty in her father’s pocket.
“Size 5, you think? Sammy’s quite a pudge, eh?” Franco went on. Claudia’s son, Sammy, was asleep with the worn stuffed lamb under his chin in the next room, and Claudia was out, god knows where. Meanwhile, Alina packaged brownie orders for the morning’s UPS pickup and Franco shopped the internet for adorable outfits for the child. It was his hobby. I want the boy to look nice, he told her.
“Where is the kid going with all these clothes, Franco? Anyway, they’re called overalls.”
“I have a coupon. They cost me almost nothing.” The mailbox was full of catalogues–Jacadi Paris, H&M junior, Zara kids, Mimi Mioche. What is all this, she’d ask him, and he’d pluck the ads from her like treasures.
She tied ribbons on the plaid boxes that had her name on them, Alina’s Gourmet Treats. The business she created out of thin air, when Claudia’s depression led to late-night ambulance rides to Scarborough General. Alina quit her nine to five at the bank with a 2 a.m. voicemail to Linda, her boss. Then she went to the kitchen cupboard and took down the cocoa. By sunrise, the counters were a bakery. She knew the not-so-difficult secret of making brownies crisp on the outside and chewy inside.
She offered her tupperware of brownies to the patients at Scarborough General 4th floor, all familiar faces. The desk ladies, nurses, and doctors were almost like friends, for the number of times her daughter tried to kill herself. When Franco, who was the custodian at the hospital—that’s how they’d met—said “I see your name in lights, Alina’s Famous Brownies,” she took it as kindness, but also understanding she’d make a business of it. Franco handed out tiny cartons of 2% milk to the patients, as if it was champagne. “Best brownies on the planet,” he toasted. It was one of Franco’s talents to create a party out of ordinary occurrences.
When he retired from the hospital two years ago, he moved in with Alina, and that included Claudia and her boy as well.
Motherhood was jumping in front of buses. Wasn’t that what every parent did?
For months, Alina had been following Darrell. Claudia’s boyfriend. Just the thought of him sent a trembling through Alina. In the morning when Darrell came out of his ratty apartment to smoke, Alina was there, across the street leaning on a hydro pole. At Tim Horton’s when he ordered his large double double, she was at her shiny booth drinking tea, giving him the evil eye. She waited in her Camry at the Catholic elementary where he sold drugs to motor heads. She knew he had a phobia of the supernatural and day by day, with her haunting presence, she felt she was getting to him.
In Alina’s mind, it was her responsibility to get him out of the picture. If she could just accomplish that. It was her only goal. On these outings, always out of the corner of her eye, Alina saw the black crow. She knew it was her father. He’d died of a heart attack when her daughter was only three and ever since he’d appeared as a black crow. No one could tell her it wasn’t him. It was him. Her father told her once, “When you have a child, you can never be free again.” She was seeing how true that was, more than he might’ve imagined. Family history is something that lives in a circle, she thought, spinning and repeating itself until the end of time.
“At lunch, Sammy was making the cute face of the sea turtles at the window,” Franco said, now, “he laughed and the milk came out his nose. It was so cute.”
“Today, Franco? All the way to the zoo?”
He smiled. ‘You don’t hear me tell you things. You went like this,” he nodded his head. “Okay, you said. Yes, I took him to zoo.”
“You’re lying to me.”
“You make trouble out of velvet, Ali. The boy is asleep, he had fun petting the little animals. Okay?” He sighed. “The boy doesn’t have friends.”
“He doesn’t have to be entertained.”
Alina knew she was being unreasonable and uptight, the way she so often was. She couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t feel pinched.
“I get cooped up. It’s just me and Sammy all day long.” Franco said.
“I was busy getting supplies.”
“Ali, you have enough butter and cocoa to build a brownie to the top of the CN tower. You can’t stop her from anything.”
He knew where she went every day. When she told him she was going to the YMCA to swim, or the bank to deposit the cheques, he knew she was lying.
“I’m not worried about Claudia,” she said. But, of course, it was always Claudia.
“You can shake that girl but there is nothing clanking inside of her. She’s solid,” Franco said, because he had the ability to see hope, even in someone as destructive as Claudia. He often talked of her fire as if it were a good thing. Alina believed her father brought Franco to her as a gift, when Sammy was born. Franco paid more attention to the boy than anyone in the house. He treated the kid like the Prince of Arabia, and he paid half the apartment bills. And still Claudia called Franco a ‘fucking weirdo’ because she ruled everyone with her darkness.
“She has no brains in her head,” she said out loud to Franco, as much as to herself.
“Please don’t go tomorrow. If it’s a sunny day we’ll take Sammy to the park, the three of us together.”
“Let me see the stripped sweater.” She went around and put a hand on his shoulder. He patted her arm and his touch was soft. She didn’t want to fight. She was too tired to fight.
“Don’t go, please.” He was caressing her face.
There was a sound from the hall just then and the two of them shared a look. Could they make it to their bedroom without seeing her? But the apartment was too small. Claudia was in the kitchen in seconds. She tossed her heavy purse on the counter and grabbed a brownie in each hand.
“I made pierogies.” Alina said, moving to the stove. “I’ll heat them for you.”
“No, Ma.” The girl laughed at her mother, a bigger laugh than was necessary and took another brownie. She was high. Always high. But was she drunk too? Never mind.
“Franco took Sammy to the zoo today.” She told her daughter.
“He’s a hero then.”
“What can you say for yourself? Where have you been?”
“I went to my therapist, okay, and to see friends.”
“He’s a good person, Ma,” Claudia said, and it was as if a wet hand hit Alina’s face. Darrell was the one who gave Claudia the heroin, told her it would cure her sadness. She actually called him her savior.
“He’s a nothing. He takes from you, and gives what in return?”
Claudia clenched her mouth, no longer laughing. “Don’t you believe in anything, Ma, besides the nuts and bolts of making food and shitting and paying bills?”
Not really, Alina thought. “I make food, and shit and pay bills, all for you.”
And to what end? More and more she was afraid. Not of that idiot drug dealer with the little eyes. Superstitious and jumpy as a cat. She was afraid of herself and what she would do to him. Alina felt certain she would have to outlast her daughter somehow, at least until the boy was grown.
“Stop doing me all these favors. And stop bullying my boyfriend.” The girl looked so out of it. “You’ve freaked him out.”
“He believes in the devil. That’s his problem.”
“Aren’t you getting tired, Ma? Aren’t you sick of your game?”
Hadn’t she just said this to herself?
“I protect you every day of your life.” Alina told her.
“I’m Sammy’s mother,” Claudia said. “I’m looking after him in my own way.” She walked toward her bedroom and Alina followed her.
In the doorway she watched her ghostly daughter. Claudia took off her jeans and in her t-shirt and underwear she got in bed next to Sammy. She lay her arm over his small shape and was asleep in seconds.
Franco came up behind her. “Let’s go to bed, Ali. You’re tired.”
“I’ve got orders to pack.”
He put his arms around her, and she leaned into him.
“Asleep, they are both angels,” she said wistfully.
“Please, Ali, don’t go tomorrow.”
Franco mapped an ‘adventure’ for them every Saturday. They’d take the GO train from Scarborough to a posh neighborhood in Toronto, to visit a fancy kids clothing shop. Franco had the spirit of an explorer with his TTC subway map and his man purse flat on his big belly.
Last week in ritzy Rosedale he added lunch to the outing, such was his boisterous mood. “You get the same food for half price at noon, Ali,” he said, forking his $17 flank steak, and smiling. They ordered a bottle of Kronenberg each as if they were on holiday. “This meal would be $38 Canadian dollars after dark, and we’ve enough left for takeaway dinner.” His cheeks turned pink when he was happy. That was the thing she envied most about him, he was content. He didn’t have much money, but he spent what he had on the boy and things that pleased him.
After lunch, they idled along until he found his coveted boutique, Advice From A Caterpillar. “I love the weekly adventure, don’t you, Ali?” he gave her hand a squeeze before heading into the shop alone. She sat on a bench in the sun and watched the people pass by and for a moment pretended she was someone without a care. She admired a few spring buds emerging from a cherry tree.
The sun was warm, and she loosened her wool scarf and tilted her face to the light. She thought of her wish to be a tender grandmother, and her hope to separate Sam from who his father was. But she could not. Every time she looked at the boy she felt ugly inside. The boy looked just like his father.
Be grateful, she told herself, she was in a quaint neighborhood in the big city. She closed her eyes and savored the taste of beer still on her lips. She prayed. But quickly again she gave way to her opinions. She let herself leave the pretty scene. She went into the bleakness of her mind and imagined her small, plump hands shaking all the life from Darrell. Every last bit of it.
“He didn’t rape me, Ma. We were together.” Claudia told her, once. “The baby isn’t possessed. You’re his Bopcha.”
His Bopcha. This was true. She was the boy’s Bopsha, and she was failing him. She couldn’t get past her rage and let love flow toward the boy. She was like an open faucet with no water coming down.
Just then, Franco had approached, rustling his bags. He spread his purchases on the bench like fine linens to admire. “Feel the quality,” he said, holding up a tiny paisley print shirt and tan pants, he was grinning. “How could I resist?” They were small clothes for an innocent child. She marveled at this considerate man and his strangeness and beauty. “Feel the softness.” He wanted her to touch the clothes. She held up the little collared shirt.
“Franco, you can never resist.”
He shrugged and laughed and she laughed too. His large hands folded the clothes nicely and put them away. He sat down beside her and took her hand in his. They sat this way for a long while.
The next day came and she didn’t heed Franco’s wish.
Just after dawn, she put the UPS orders on the porch and left the house, and her father, the black crow, was there, like every morning. The bird squawked and cawed and it could have been the sound of No, but she didn’t listen.
In line at Tim Hortons she handed the attendant $1.28 in exact change for her tea. Darrell was already there, oddly, at her table, sitting in her booth.
“You loca, Bopsha?” He called out to her. Then he got up and came close to her. He appeared almost confident. To the rest of the line it may have seemed as if they knew each other well.
“Crazy? You better hope not,” she said, not moving. “And never again call me Bopsha.”
“Your daughter is psycho too, more cuts on her than a butcher’s block.” His shoulder leaned hard into her. He had never approached her in this way. She planted her feet. Not budging.
“She’s a good girl, you low life.” Her voice was loud and people stared at them now. He moved to one side, while she met his gaze and took steps towards him.
“You’re a wack job, just leave us alone,” he said, and she was sure his voice had weakened.
“Bad luck will follow you.” She hissed at him. This is who she had become. An old woman who hissed at a man in the Tim Hortons, like an ancient troll.
She didn’t care.
“What do you want from me, you fuckin crazy?”
She wanted him to feel small, the way he seemed now, and she wanted him in pain.
“I have power over you,” she shouted. Her fury was so great she reached out to slap him but he grabbed her wrist. She heard fearful gasps from the people in the store. She jerked wildly to get out of his hold. They struggled in a tussle. It was a scene.
Darrell looked scared. “This woman is crazy! She should be locked up!” He pointed at her. She kept her fists up.
“Bopsha! Bopsha!” she heard.
It was a child’s voice, she looked down and there was the boy, Sammy, her grandson.
“Why are you yelling?” she managed to say.
“Bopsha?” He was pulling at her pant leg.
“Come here, Sammy!” Franco was there. He looked at her with such sadness and disappointment that it stopped her breath.
“Alina,” he said, “You’ve gone too far.”
Then a man, maybe the manager of the donut shop, took hold of her arm and pulled her out the door. There were two policeman, and onlookers making a ruckus. Darrell was gone. Franco and the boy looked terrified as she got into the police car. “I was protecting my child,” she told them all the way to the station. “He ruined her life.” She had become like a character in one of the cop shows she and Franco liked to watch at night.
On the bus ride home, after she was cleared, claiming self defense, she had a memory of Claudia’s father, Leo. Claudia was a baby and they’d had a fight and he head-locked Alina and threatened to push her down the apartment stairwell. Alina’s father opened the door at the bottom of the stairs at just the right moment. He was carrying a plastic Safeway bag filled with tomatoes and zucchini from his garden. “Leo,” her father called up to them, “Let her go. Now.” Leo dropped Alina to the floor and her father went up the stairs past them. That afternoon, Leo packed his belongings and left for good, even as baby Claudia was crying in the next room.
Just like that, Alina was free of the man.
“I’ll be a good parent like you, Papi.” She’d told him that day, seeing the irony again in the fact that she’d raise her child alone, just as he had.
“You’re leaps ahead of me, Scarbie,” he’d said.
She wanted to get home and share this memory with Franco. She wanted to tell him everything she was thinking. That her intention was only to live up to the promise she made to her father.
When she arrived, she found the front door open. She went through the kitchen and saw Claudia through the crack of her bedroom door, still asleep.
“Franco, are you there? Why is the front door open?” The place was silent. She went down the long hallway to their bedroom. Her cheeks burned with fear; her head was throbbing. Had they not made it home?
She opened the door to find Franco and Sam on the bed watching TV.
“Bopsha, Bopsha,” the boy said and leapt up to hug her. “You didn’t go to jail?” He was shouting and jumping up and down on the bed.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. They were watching The Three Stooges. The boy had new pajamas, the same matching dinosaur t-shirt and shorts that Franco was wearing.
“Did you get hurt, Bopsha?” The boy’s arms were tight around her neck and she allowed herself to hug his small body. She lifted him up and cradled him in her lap at the edge of the bed. She was exhausted. “Tell me about the police car!”
“Not now,” she said, looking at Franco with tears. “You two up to something?”
“No, not us, Alina.” Franco said, looking away from her, and shaking his head.
“We are twins, Bopsha,” the boy said, showing her the stegosaurus on his top, his arm still around her neck.
“Very cute,” she said. But then she addressed Franco. “You’ve lost hold of your senses. You left the door wide open.” She couldn’t find words.
He shrugged, and then turned up the volume on the television.
Sammy curled into her, and she breathed in his warmth. She didn’t get up to check on Claudia or rush to the computer to check her brownie orders. She held the boy in her lap while he laughed at the funny men on the screen. She stayed sitting there with the two of them until Franco switched off the tv.
“Now, I’ll tell you both about the police car,” she said.
About the Author – Lisa Cupolo
Lisa Cupolo has worked as an editor at Paramount Pictures, a paparazzi photographer in London and a publicist at HarperCollins Toronto. Her stories have appeared in Narrative, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Idaho Review. A native of Canada, she now lives in Southern California and teaches at Chapman University.
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