It rained on and off for several weeks. A canopy of gunmetal grey hung over everything and Bella was gone. The morning after her mother’s funeral she had disappeared and the house on Albemarle Road felt empty without her. Without the red heat from the stoked furnace of her pillowed belly, or the raunchy giggles of her personal perfume it just wasn’t the same. Stanford and Elmer found her room a shipwreck. A violent jumble of sheets and pillows crouched on the bed like a pack of wild dogs. Dresser drawers hung open, their contents spilled. The vaulted doors of the waterfall chifforobe stood splayed. Scarves bled onto carpet, dresses sat in heaps next to hats scattered like lonely life preservers. Only a few keepsakes seemed to be missing; the sliver chain necklace with its St. Anthony medal, her charm bracelet, and the two photos; the one of the baby and the silver-framed picture of the strongman with Bella on his shoulders.
She’s never done this before, Elmer said.
The little landlord stood in the middle of the debris like a lost bird. He pointed to a naked nail above her bed. And look! he said. She took the Christ with her!
Stanford glanced at the plus sign shadow of unfaded pink paint in the middle of the wall. It marked the cross’s old territory. Like a dagger. Where do you think she went? he asked.
Elmer’s head toggled. I don’t know. Maybe like Dreamland she fell into the sea. He picked up a record, cracked and chipped on the rim. Paul Whitman and his Orchestra. All of Me. He placed the record on the Victrola, and wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his kimono.
Stanford was used to Elmer’s hyperbole. It was everywhere. In the wainscoting, the chandeliers, the massive antiques, the ostrich plumes, the obnoxious bird, the room they were in, and, of course, the tenants, including, Stanford knew well enough, himself. After all, Stanford carried a toy stuffed monkey, regularly spoke to his long dead nanny, and silently pined for the other young man who had recently raped him.
What do you mean the bottom of the sea? he asked.
Well, she hurled herself into the waves once before, Elmer said. Four years ago, while walking my dog Miss Twinkles, I found her, beached on the sand at Coney Island, like a dead baby whale. She was purple, but still alive. Later she told me she was trying to kill herself but the water had spit her back out. He raised the edge of the kimono to his throat. The sea had rejected her, he whispered. I brought her back to the house. He picked a hanger and a dress up off the carpet. That’s how she came to live here, he said. We saved each other. Bella and me. He hung the dress in the chifforobe and shut the doors. Poor Bella, he said. A mother’s death is hard to bear.
Bella hates her mother, Stanford said. Almost as much as I hate mine.
How could you hate your mother? Elmer asked.
Listen, your mother may have been Mildred Pierce, Stanford said. But mine certainly wasn’t. And neither was Bella’s. I saw her slap her mother’s corpse. Three times. Stanford looked to where the picture of the baby used to be. I don’t think Bella would try and kill herself, he said. And I don’t think her leaving has anything to do with her mother’s death. I think it has to do with the fact that Bella is a mother herself.
The spectral echo of an infant’s cry crackled over their heads.
What did you say? Elmer asked.
Bella had a baby, Stanford said. When she was fifteen.
The little landlord stared. I don’t believe you. How do you know?
She told me. Just like she told you she’d tried to kill herself. She told me she fucked a boy on his kitchen floor one morning. When they were both sophomores in high school. She fucked him because it was a snowy day and because she was tired of being a virgin.
Elmer sat on the edge of the bed.
It was during the big snowstorm of thirty five, Stanford continued, and nine months later she had a baby boy. She called him Robert. Bobby, she called him. She kept him for a while but her father made her give him away. To the Catholics. Like a donation.
Elmer grabbed the collar of his kimono.
She got him back, Stanford said. But there was a fight. A gun was fired.
Elmer’s hand went up to his mouth.
Her little brother’s ear was blown off.
Then the baby was taken away. For good. And Bella never saw the little thing again.
Holy Mother of Christ, Elmer said.
Stanford crouched down and looked under the bed. Bella’s pink hatbox, her carryall, was gone. This was the buoy he needed to grab onto; the hope he needed to hold. Holy Mother of Christ, be repeated.
Two consecutive Sunday dinners were canceled. After that, the family style meals consisted of overcooked potato stew. Bella’s magic was gone. Her elixer, the tomato gravy, was sorely missed. Customers just stared at their pastaless plates, not knowing what to do with the vile-looking glop in front of them.
Where’s Bella? they all asked.
She’s on vacation, Elmer said.
Damp day followed damp day. A humid fog, as heavy and as thick as the overcooked stew, met each morning. It lingered for hours. Then it slowly lumbered up to heaven like a bloated blanket until it was ready to relieve itself.
Late one starchy morning, Stanford found himself alone. The house was as quiet as a stone. In the sauceless silence of the kitchen he pulled a lone jar of tomato gravy out from the pantry. He had hidden it behind the Cocomalt. He popped the lid and the seal broke. A tomato tang immediately burped into the air and briefly brought Bella back – her smile, her painted nails, her moody fits, her charm bracelet, her tomato rouged cheeks, her singing, her tits. He wanted to try and keep her there. Conjured. He took the flame stained cast iron skillet down from the shelf above the stove and plopped the gravy into its heavy black bottom. It sizzled its garlic and basil and tomato aromas into the air. For a moment he panicked, afraid the scent would send a false message.
But she wasn’t. Only the memory of her danced around the old alter of her stove. A brief prayer. A silent song, sung just for him.
He ate alone on the back steps of the house, and was filled with regret when he was done. Was that the last of her? Had he killed what little was left?
Afterward, he hopped on one of the neighborhood bicycles and pedaled all the way down to the boardwalk. Small packs of seagulls squawked and flapped over the boards. The parachute jump was closed. A few of the men in the white jumpsuits scaled the giant structure, testing turnbuckles and greasing springs. They whistled when they saw a lone set of gams stroll by and dared stray fellas to take a drop in the rain. Stanford thought about it. He wanted to see the world from way up high, to see if he could somehow spot where Bella was. The Wonder Wheel turned in the rain behind him like the hand of a giant clock. Music from the Looff Carousel chirped in the wet.
Could be Bella was at the bottom of the sea, swimming among the titanic bits of the long-dead, sea-buried Dreamland, her feet tangled in seaweed or one of Captain Bonavita’s old lion taming whips. Perhaps she was floating along with the barnacled bones of one of Madam Morelli’s leopards, or wading through schools of greasy nickels from dented ticket booth cashboxes, hypnotized like one of Morris’s Wonderful Illusions, levitating in the depths under the giant arch from Bostock’s animal arena, or maybe she was fin kicking past Our Boy’s In Blue, lit by one of Andrew Mack’s charred lighthouse towers. What if she was sucked into the disintegrating mouth of the old Hellgate ride where the bullet that began Dreamland’s infernal demise was shot? Stanford looked out at the sea, at the choppy little waves bouncing like diamond tipped party hats. He didn’t see her anywhere. He didn’t hear her drowning mermaid’s song, but he did hear a small wail. The tiny cry of a baby came over the vast expanse and he knew, just like that; Bella wasn’t in the water. She wasn’t in Coney Island at all. She was somewhere else, fucking a strongman, or she was with Jesus Christ, searching for her long lost son, with Saint Francis as their guide.
David Ciminello’s fiction has been included in the anthology BEST GAY ROMANCE 2010, the anthology PORTLAND QUEER: TALES OF THE ROSE CITY, and in the literary journal LUMINA. His poetry has appeared in POETRY NORTHWEST. His original screenplay BRUNO (aka THE DRESS CODE) was produced and released in 2000. He currently lives and writes in New York City.