Victims or Others?
The accordions didn’t match. Though the same size, they were stark opposites, each representative of the yin and yang. Mine was luminous white, an ethereal moonbeam that came through windows while my sister’s was a polished piece of onyx. That Saturday afternoon, we had spent the day with my father and grandparents. They lived in the French Quarter where my grandfather owned a bar room and ran a clubhouse for a group of men who played poker and ate muffalettas with extra olive salad on sesame bread. My grandfather had his cronies, four or five men who came to the small building tucked between the bar room and my grandparents’ home. It was a white stucco building trimmed in green, and in a part of town known for its wrought iron balconies, fancy dormers, and historic slate rooftops, the clubhouse’s facade appeared comparably bland. The men usually gathered there in the early afternoon to play cards. They didn’t reconcile statements, they didn’t fix broken pipes, and they didn’t keep shop. They shuffled, dealt, bluffed, lost and won.
Mr. Red was the oldest. He had a ruddy face with a bulbous nose and he wore baggy brown pants. A stubby cigar usually protruded from his lips and he often appeared to be mumbling to himself. Sammy P liked to dress well with dashing silk shirts and creases in his pants. Sometimes his wife Ruby would come with him and visit with my grandmother. Ruby sported floral dresses and had violet blue eyes. Her hair, not really brown and not really red, was a color that my grandmother identified as auburn in autumn. Sid looked young, olive skinned with high cheek bones. Something about him seemed more Hawaiian than Mediterranean. He stood taller than the others and my grandfather seemed to like him the most. Sid chewed Wrigley’s spearmint gum and would curl the empty white wrappers around his fingers. He chewed the gum long enough to capitalize on its sweetness, then he’d place the sticky wad in the wrapper he had just finished curling. Chicago Mike earned his nickname from his native city. He was a rotund, baritone of a man with dark circles around his eyes, and always wore two-tone shoes. Chicago Mike often came to Dauphine Street with random gifts: tins of fruit cakes laced with bourbon, pairs of black Nunn Bush shoes encased in maroon velvet pouches, even mink stoles, both silver and sable — lined with deep green satin for all the women in the family. On this particular Saturday, Chicago Mike brought me and my sister accordions.
The accordions arrived in metal cases. At first, we thought that he had given us two identical pieces of shiny, space-age luggage with locks and buffed black handles. The cases felt heavy as we hoisted them on top of the dining room table. As I struggled to open mine, I wondered if Chicago Mike had brought me some new winter clothes, perhaps a small fur coat of my own and a matching muff that the New Orleans winter would not warrant. We flipped the cases open and saw the accordions with their keys, metal reeds, and bellows. Mike lifted them out of the cases and adjusted the straps around our necks. Instantly, we began pushing and pulling the bellows while pressing the keys, our slight torsos blanketed by uneven and discordant riffs until it was time to pack them up and bring them home where our mother was waiting.
Earlier that same year, my father had purchased a TR7 Triumph after he left our house on Athis back in March. Months had passed with no sight of reconciliation. My mother had declared the Triumph she would never ride in as impractical. It was a noisy two-seater, pale yellow, with not much of a back seat and a compact trunk.
That afternoon, my sister sat in the front seat, mostly quiet. I remember her long black hair parted to the side, and that in the dwindling light she looked more Indian than Sicilian. Since the car did not have a radio, my father spent the entire time grilling me with multiplication tables. It seemed quite marvelous to me that any two numbers could be multiplied and my father would unfailingly know the correct answer without demonstrating any signs of calculation. He also knew that math was my weakest subject and he was determined to make me adept with numbers. The rides home were always his last ditch effort to make math less daunting.
My sister’s accordion sat in the trunk and with each sharp turn, it shimmied and knocked against the sides of the impractical Triumph. I held mine upright as I sat in the center over the carpeted hump. I draped my arm over it and each time my father shifted from first to second gear, the case would press against my stomach. Once we reached the house, he stopped the car and got my sister’s accordion out of the trunk. Fortunately we arrived home before he could quiz me on sixes and sevens, especially sevens, because the odd numbers were just that to me — odd and increasingly more troublesome. I gazed at the kitchen window. My sister and father did not notice the flowered curtains parting. I dashed through the gate and was nearly up the steps when my sister caught up with me. My mother opened the door before we could knock; my father put the car in first and took off in a scrambled yellow blur faster than my mother could say impractical.
“What’s in the suitcases?” my mother asked.
“Accordions,” we chimed.
“…from Chicago Mike,” I blurted. Judy glanced at me but it was too late. My mother pressed her lips together in a taut horizon.
“Mine’s white like a moonbeam and Judy’s…” I continued. My sister elbowed me in the ribs as my voice drifted in the direction of the sunset.
Without saying a word, my mother went into the hall closet and got the wiry switch. She hooked it into the loop of the attic door and in an instant she unfolded the wooden steps. We were greeted with an avalanche of attic heat and the spicy scent of cedar.
“Put those in the attic,” she said, “and don’t tell anyone that you have them or who gave them to you.”
I was stunned. Judy climbed up the rungs and I followed her, each of us pushing the weight of what we had received. When we returned, my mother folded up the stairs and gave the door a quick push where it closed with an abrupt thunderclap.
After dark, in whispers, my sister and I rehashed the day. I whined to Judy about not ever being able to play the accordion, let alone remove its white luminosity from the spiffy case… the strange secrecy of the gifts we never requested being banished to the attic. My sister yawned and turned on her side facing the pink stucco wall.
“Chicago Mike steals things,” she said sleepily, “then gives them to others.”
I lay flat on my back, staring up at the darkness, the plaster ceiling separating us from the accordions. That night I did not know who were the victims of his crime. Was it us or the others? I wanted to ask my sister, but she had already fallen asleep.
Gina Ferrara is the author of four poetry collections, the latest, Fitting the Sixth Finger: Poems Inspired by the Paintings of Marc Chagall, was published by Aldrich Press. Her work has appeared in The Poetry Ireland Review, The Briar Cliff Review, The MockingHeart Review, and Callalo, among others. She lives in New Orleans where she has curated The Poetry Buffet since 2007.