PHYLLIS SOUZA - DARKNESS DESCENDED
1921—Southern California, ten miles east of the Pacific Ocean
Ten-year-old Laura posed for a photograph. To her mother, she looked stoic. Her mouth stretched wide turned down at the corners. Dark curls were hanging below her shoulders. A big bow pinned in her hair. Snap! In a millisecond, the camera captured her sadness.
"Mama, I have a headache," Laura complained.
Emily placed her hand on her daughter's forehead. "You're burning up. Crawl into bed. I'll get you some water and a couple of aspirin."
A few minutes later, Emily handed Laura the pills.
"My throat hurts.”
"Don't whine. Take the pills."
Laura placed the tablets in her mouth and with a few sips of water managed to swallow.
Falling back, she dropped her head onto the pillow and fell into a restless sleep.
A couple of hours later, around three, Laura woke up with a stiff neck. Doctor Diaz, the family doctor, had been called to the house.
"It looks like Polio. The beaches and theaters are closed. Worst summer epidemic I've seen in years." He put the stethoscope back in his black medical bag. Shaking his head, he said, "Terrible disease. Just terrible.”
"What can we do?" Emily asked.
"As far as I know—hot compresses may help prevent paralysis. Work Laura's limbs, bending her knees and elbows."
Laura's father Manuel and her mother, cut wool blankets into strips, dipped them in hot water, wrung them out, and then wrapped them around Laura's arms and legs.
After about a week, the illness passed. However, one of Laura's legs never developed as it should, and she walked with a limp.
1925— Manuel died from tuberculosis
The parish priest, still a little hung-over from drinking too much wine the night before, gave a brief eulogy. "Dust to dust." He cleared his throat. Then said, "Manuel was thirty-nine. A husband. A father. Although he wasn't a churchgoer, he was a Christian.” The priest gazed at the few mourners gathered at the side of the grave. “And if you were to ask him if he’d come back, no doubt in my mind, that Manuel would say, no."
Clasping his prayer book to his chest, "Now let us bow our heads and pray, Our Father— May he rest in peace."
Emily, dry-eyed, stood next to her daughter. Laura sobbed while staring at the plain brown casket.
"Laura, stop crying. He's gone. Let's go." Emily said. "At least we still have a home. No money, but a home."
"Mama, please. I don't want to leave Papa alone."
"Don't be such a baby. Everyone's leaving. And so are we." Emily grabbed onto Laura's arm. "Come on."
Laura, dressed in a black coat, wept as she hobbled behind Emily to the curb of All Souls Cemetery.
Fishing boats unloaded
Dressed in a white uniform, and wearing a hairnet, Emily left the house early every morning to go to work at a seafood cannery.
A bugle like sound blasted throughout the Pacific Tuna Cannery Company. It was time to go to work. Emily used a timesheet to check-in. "I hate this place," she said to herself. The pungent smell of fish filled the air.
Along with 100 other women, 50 on each side on a long table, a large pan at each station, Emily, stood all day with a knife in her hands cleaning fish.
The first thing she did when she got home was to pour a hefty helping of "Lux Flakes" under hot running water into the bathtub. With a bar of Ivory in one hand and a washrag in the other, Emily immersed herself in mounds of bubbles. "Ah, this feels so good."
As relaxed as she was, she still fervently lathered up the cloth with soap, and scrubbed her face, neck, arms, and legs, trying to remove the stench of fish.
1933—The neighborhood grocery store
A bell tied to a screen door jingled. Laura slowly limped into the grocery store. Joe Pimentel, the proprietor, stopped stacking canned goods on shelves, and pleasantly said, "Good morning, what can I get for you?"
"One can of tomato sauce and an onion. I'm making chicken soup for dinner. My mother's favorite."
"How's your mother?"
"Complains a lot. But she's okay."
"Still working at the cannery?"
"Yeah, still working. If it weren't for my leg, I'd probably be there too.”
Leaning in close, "Sunshine, you're much too pretty to pack tuna into a can."
Laura blushed, "Thank you. But I think not."
"Excuse me for a minute; I'll get an onion. And the tomato sauce." Joe walked away. A minute later, he came back with Laura's order.
A few days later, Laura paid another visit to the store.
She waited at the counter for Joe to come out from a back room, where she presumed was where he slept. I wonder if he has a girlfriend hiding in there?
"Sorry to keep you waiting. I needed to get a saucer of milk for Tigger." Joe set down the dish on the floor near the empty wine barrel that he used as a table.
"That's okay.” Feeling embarrassed about her thought, Laura looked away, in fact, she looked all around the store, “Where's your cat? He, he usually runs over to greet me."
"He's around here someplace." Joe called, "Tigger."
An orange striped cat darted out from under the counter on the other side of the store and came running.
"Don't tell me. Let me guess. You need an onion and can of tomato sauce?" Joe laughed.
"Oh no, just a couple of slices of baloney and a loaf of bread." Laura brushed away a strand hair away from her face, "I bet you think I use an awful lot of onions and tomato sauce."
Just then the cat jumped on top of the counter. "Well Tigger, you tell him I need 'em to make stews, meatloaves, and soups." Laura chuckled, flashing a beautiful smile.
"It seems like everybody wants a baloney sandwich these days.” Joe sliced two pieces off a big roll of Bologna.
While handing a dollar to Joe to pay for her purchase, he grasped her hand, "I'd like to call on you. Maybe stop by your home sometime?"
"Oh, I don't know." Feeling the warmth of his fingers, she paused. Gazing into his soft brown eyes, and he in hers, she said, "That would be nice."
"Perhaps tomorrow, around seven."
"Tomorrow around seven is fine."
Joe paid Laura a visit
Although Joe was at least ten years older than Laura, he came calling. Three months later, he asked her to marry him.
When Laura told her mother about the proposal, Emily laughed, "Joe asked you? What did you say?"
"I said, yes."
"That's ridiculous. Why would Joe do something like that?" Emily pursed her lips and lowered her voice, "I'm prettier."
"What did you say?"
"Nothing." Emily raised her hand in dismissal.
Laura knew her mother was comparing herself to her daughter and had been surprised that someone, like Joe, could have proposed marriage. Emily was jealous.
With his heart filled with love, Joe handed Laura one dozen, long-stemmed, red roses, and said, "Happy Anniversary." He kissed her on the cheek.
"Oh, Joe, they're beautiful," Laura buried her nose in the flowers. She inhaled. "They smell lovely, I can't believe it's been a year."
"The happiest year of my life."
"Mine too." Laura smiled. "I'll get a vase.” She hobbled over to a counter, put down the flowers, leaned over and took an Art Deco container out from the cabinet under the kitchen sink.
After a pot roast dinner, Joe poured Marcella wine into two glasses. He raised his drink, "May we have many more years."
"Yes, many more."
Fall turns to winter
I'm so tired. I'll lie down a few minutes before I start dinner. Laura held onto the armrest of the sofa and lowered herself onto a cushion. Stretching out, she closed her eyes. Don't let Joe see you resting. He might think you're sick.
She remembered what her mother said when she saw her napping: 'Goddamnit, you know I'm hungry when I come home from work. Just because you're tired, that no excuse.'
She rested for ten minutes, and then slowly getting up, shuffled to the kitchen. While standing at the sink peeling potatoes for dinner, Laura's began to cough continuously. Her chest hurt. She felt hot. Beads of sweat formed above her upper lip and across her forehead, she saw stars, everything blurred. Laura collapsed.
When Joe walked in and found Laura sprawled on the floor, he rushed to her. "Laura. Oh, my God, Laura."
He dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around her. He noticed blood in the corner of her mouth.
Billowing white curtains floated like ghosts reaching through an open window. Laura lay flat on her back in bed. She'd been diagnosed with tuberculosis.
At seven in the evening, Emily stopped by the modest home attached to the store. She had swept her hair up into pompadour, her eyebrows plucked into an arch, and her lips painted red.
Joe sat at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of coffee and looked up when Emily barged in without knocking. "You're made up. Going someplace? He asked.
"Only here." She smiled. "Thought you might like some chicken soup."
"Thanks, Emily. Put it on top of the stove."
"You must get lonely, with Laura being sick in bed.” She put the pot down on a back burner.
“I’ll heat it later. I’m sure Laura will enjoy it.” He took a sip of his coffee.
"I guess I better check on her." Emily knocked, cracked open the bedroom door, and holding onto its edge, she popped her head into the room, "How do you feel? I brought dinner."
"That's not necessary, Joe knows how to cook." I hate that she stops by here every night. She doesn't care about me. I know what she wants.
"Doing my duty, that's all. Doing my duty." She closed the door.
Tears trickled down Laura's cheeks when she heard Emily's laughter in the kitchen. I wish she'd stay away.
A few weeks later, the flame of a candle sitting on top of the nightstand was reaching the bottom of its wick, it sputtered as Laura struggled to take her last breath.
Joe drowned himself, but not in religion. He didn't believe in God. Not in his work, because that didn't matter anymore. Not in liquor, it only dulled his senses. None of these. He wanted a wife. So, Joe married Emily.
Within a few months, Emily changed. No longer the laughing, carefree woman he'd known, she nagged and spent money as fast as he could make it. He felt like an insect caught in a black widow's web and needed to cut free.
Joe divorced Emily. He sold his store and journeyed by boat to live near his brother in Brazil.
Emily continued to work at the fish cannery. She kept her eyebrows plucked, put on her makeup, and still wore her hair in a pompadour. She looked good, but would never be able to wash away the stench of fish.
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