Table of Contents - Vol. VIII, No. 3
“... a fortune teller I don't claim to be,
there's a place I know called the Tip-Top ...
... won't you come and take a walk with me?”
- Ronnie Laine
As you know, Leini was a pretty girl, a beauty not seen in the Holy Land until the great-granddaughters of the Diacumacos brothers served chili dogs on Eastern Avenue long after Leini was dead.
But it was not Leini’s gaunt good looks, her curiosity or the awkward grace that always spilled soup over the lip of the bowl that drew Orlo into the signature narrative of his life on a Friday evening in 1926.
It was tragedy - pure, ghastly and criminal.
Unlike the slow, corrosive hardships that buffeted Leini over her long decades in Crabtown – the discovery that she’d been traded for sewing machines, an arranged marriage to a monster, her only son killed in the war - the catastrophe Orlo found behind the broom factory took place in less than five minutes.
Machines slapping broomsticks into place, steel wire spinning ’round a head of straw, the only sound in a vacant lot of weeds on the far reaches of Toone Street when Orlo discovered the body of a 12-year-old gypsy girl named Aishe Cooper.
Raped and murdered, still bleeding but not breathing when Orlo climbed down from his cart to look.
Flies buzzing, gulls circling.
Orlo galloped off to find a cop he knew, a detective from the pickpocket squad, and told him what he’d seen.
“My God,” said the junkman, turning his wagon for home. “Even in Verdun, I never saw anything like it.”
Clip-clop down to the end of Clinton Street, a ride that usually took 20 minutes today lasting more than an hour as Orlo stopped again and again – knees knocking, ankles sore - to check on a whole lot of nothing glinting beyond the machine shops and fertilizer warehouses, hopping down from the wagon just to feel his legs move beneath him.
Passing Ralph’s Diner – beyond it, big white letters spelling SALVAGE HOUSE on the roof of the only place he’d ever lived – all-of-a-sudden famished. He tied his horse to a tree near the clearing where Ralph Rafailidis slaughtered hogs on a stump and hobbled inside, feeling old at 29.
Wash and blanch four pigs’ feet.
Wrap in cheesecloth and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat immediately and simmer for four hours, uncovered.
In the last 30 minutes of simmering, add: a pound of fresh green beans – snipped and snapped - one head of cabbage and replace one quart of water with one quart of stewed tomatoes.
Season with fresh basil and cracked peppercorns.
Orlo ordered the special: stewed pig feet not long from the stump, fresh trotters that distinguished Ralph’s among the stevedores, laborers, barge men, pipefitters and railroaders who worked the length of Clinton Street.
Black and white, Bohunk, Polack and Kraut, men who had their choice of a half-dozen gin mills for a meal between shifts – Girlie Hoffman’s, the Tip-Top, Aggie Silk’s – chose Ralph’s because they knew he butchered his own hog meat.
The girl who brought the a deep bowl of stew, half-a-loaf of black bread and tall glass of beer had served Orlo lunch or dinner or both two and three days a week since she was old enough to carry a tray; the heretofore predictable charge of hard-working Greeks who could not have children of their own.
Leini was 17, forbidden anywhere alone except church and the library, both of which she turned into rocket ships. Aishe Cooper was 12 and dead, dead, dead and Orlo Pound, the junkman of Clinton Street was about to forfeit a lifetime friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Rafailidis.
“Thank you,” he said, pushing his chair an inch away from the table to give her room, touching her hand with his fingertips as she wiped a spot where the stew had spilled.
Leini looked at him with surprise but did not move her hand. Orlo pressed her hand and the girl shifted her weight from one thin leg to the other.
Orlo lowered his eyes and picked up a spoon. Looking into the stew - a travers le miroir – he followed shining drops of olive oil as they drifted across the surface of the broth. Knew what he was doing and did it anyway.
“Take a ride with me.”
Leini mistook the tear in his eye for steam rising from the bowl. At age nine, she’d crossed the ocean. For the past four years, she’d gone through pre-determined paces – school, work, church, rinse and repeat – along a rough stretch of Baltimore waterfront with the knowledge that the Ralphs had bought her for a crate of sewing machines, the kind you worked with a treadle.
She had read enough to know that the answer to Orlo’s question was not: “Where?”
Leini took a cloth-bound book from her dirty white apron. The novel was new, celebrated; the fallen Eve on the cover in a green robe, slumped beneath a tree without leaves. She’d finished it in the kitchen just before Orlo walked in, a fresh smudge of grease on the page where a bloody ear is passed from the ring into the stands.
Setting the book next to the bowl of pig’s feet, she said, “This has to go back to the library before noon tomorrow.”
“Junk that memory had made precious . . .”
- Nathaniel West, “Miss Lonelyhearts”
It took nearly three years for Orlo and Leini to lie down together for the first time; three years and a couple of hours for him to tell her what he’d seen before walking into Ralph’s on the day that changed everything.
Until then, arguing with her on the balcony of a room he’d had built for them in Cabbage Alley - after the nap that followed their bath over a long and promising afternoon – no one but the dick from the pick-pocket squad knew it was Orlo who’d found the girl. The papers attributed it to “a passerby.”
Impossible, said the detective the next day when he saw Orlo with a girl in his wagon who looked an awful lot like the one in the morgue.
“How so?” said Orlo, eager to ride off.
“The word cooper cannot be translated into gypsy English. It just can’t,” said the cop, rattling on in the way that know-it-all policemen often do: “All the stuff we use every day? Buckets? Tubs? Barrels? Them Romas – that’s what they are you know, call’em a gypsy is like callin’ ’em a nigger – they don’t have a word for any of it. Maybe that’s why they’re filthy.”
Orlo tipped his hat and headed off to savor what remained of the half-hour Leini had lied to acquire; no need to explain the crude anthropology lecture because she’d decided to spend their first day together (if a half-hour can be construed as a day) listening.
Only to hear it blurted out in anger three years down the road, on the eve of a looming Depression no one knew was coming, a collapse that would trump every coming decision.
“Do you know why? Do you? Know why I needed to show you something bigger than a shithole Greek diner?”
But Leini wasn’t putting up with it anymore. Come hell or Hoovervilles. She stamped her bare foot and played an ace.
“Your Baltimore is a good story ...”
And it was. A pretty one, secret rooms walled and carpeted in new velvet, a skylight made of broken transoms that made up half of the roof, a bathtub built for two salvaged from a wrecked mansion uptown. Treasure from the debris of other people’s lives. Just a story.
“Mine is real,” she said, her hair still damp, the evening breeze giving her gooseflesh. “It’s real and it hurts.”
Leini asked him to run away with her, made the distinction between taking her and going with her. Said her toddler son was close by with a friend and she had $500 pinned inside of her dress.
“Tonight – now,” she said. “Or I’m going back to Greece.”
And he rewarded her with the Aishe Cooper story, cooking the details until they boiled.
Said he wasn’t sure what was in the weeds but was certain it wasn’t good, the horse skittish, leaping.That for an awful moment he thought of ignoring it. How the gypsy caravan was halfway to Cecil County by the time he found a cop.
Told her that when he walked into Ralph’s he sat down to the best les porcs pieds of his life but felt like a cheap hunk of braciole.
“Not Sunday braciole up on Conkling Street,” he said, attacking with the thing they loved best, chaste meals shared in confidence for 36 long months. “Peasant shit, Len. Wooden hammer playing ‘Oh Susanna’ on pork belly. Flattened me out good.”
He’d never seen a casualty in the Great War as dead as the girl in the weeds behind the broom factory when the beauty of Clinton Street – Aishe Cooper in bloom - served him the Friday special.
Leini stamped her other foot and held her ground, leaving the coward Orlo Pound alone to watch the sun set behind a plaster Statue of Liberty high atop the Tutti Frutti ice cream factory.
It was destined that there would be an Orlo Pound from the time the English set up colonial shipyards along the Patapsco River.
That there existed a Leini was proved with a sales receipt for 14 sewing machines the girl found in a button tin on the day she first got her period.
But if not for the fate of Aishe Cooper – ripped apart like a cantaloupe, cold butter tearing through a thin slice of soft bread - there never would have been an Orlo and Leini.
© Rafael Alvarez