Read an Excerpt
From her window Kit Zanetti can see absolutely everything that happens on Commerce Street. The name doesn’t really suit the street; it should be called Winding Trail, or Lavender Lane, or Rue de Gem. Greenwich Village doesn’t get any more enchanting than this at night, with the puddles of blue light around the roots of old trees that grow a few feet apart on either side of the street; or any lovelier by day, when the sun bakes the connecting row houses, none more than four stories high, some festooned in ivy, a few white clapboard with black-licorice trim, and one storefront so old that the brick façade has faded from maroon to pale orange. The brownstone stoops are hemmed with old terra-cotta pots containing whatever flowers grow in the shade, usually pink and white impatiens. The sidewalks are uneven, the concrete squares like slabs of layer cake. The shutters that swing from the windows are painted mottled shades of cream and Mamie pink, a powdery peach tone not seen since the Eisenhower administration (it appears the shutters have not been painted since then, either).
This is the ideal home for a playwright, clusters of buildings filled with stories and people whose quirks play out with small-town regularity. Every morning Kit sits in the window while her coffee brews, and witnesses the same scene. A petite woman with shocking red hair walks a Great Dane as tall as she is, and as they turn the corner, she yanks the leash, and he leaps into the air, setting off the car alarm in the Chevy Nova. On the opposite corner, a bald accountant in a suit the color of a Tootsie Roll emerges from his basement apartment, looks up at the sky, takes a deep breath, and hails a cab. Finally, the superintendent from the apartment building across the street comes out of the foyer, hops on his stripped-down bike (essentially two wheels connected by a coat hanger), throws a broom over his shoulder, and rides off, looking very World War II Italy.
There is a loud knock at the door. Kit is expecting her landlord and super, Tony Sartori, to stop by and unclog her sink for the tenth time this year. The tenants have never seen a professional anybody (plumber, electrician, painter) with actual tools work in the building. Everything in this building, from the wiring to the gas to the pipes, is fixed by Tony with duct tape. The tape thing became so funny that Kit cut out a magazine article about how Miss America contestants create cleavage under their evening gowns by hoisting their breasts with duct tape, and put it in her rent envelope. Mr. Sartori never mentioned receiving the article, but he began addressing Kit as Miss Pennsylvania.
“I’m coming,” Kit calls out sweetly in the high-pitched, grateful tone of a renter who doesn’t want to be any trouble. She opens the door. “Oh, Aunt Lu.” Lu is not actually Kit’s aunt, but everyone in the building calls her “aunt,” so Kit does, too. Sometimes Lu leaves gifts for Kit outside the door—a small bag of expensive coffee beans, a bar of lilac soap, a sample box of tiny perfume bottles—with a note that says, “Enjoy!” in big, cursive handwriting. The stationery, small ecru cards with a gold “L” engraved on them, is uptown tasteful.
Lu smiles warmly. “How are you?” She lives upstairs in the back apartment and is the only other single woman in Kit’s building. She’s in her seventies, but she has the chic look of New York’s older ladies who stay in the moment. Her hair is done, her lipstick applied in the latest shade of fiery fuchsia, and she wears a vintage Hermès scarf wrapped around her neck and anchored by a sparkly brooch. Aunt Lu is trim and small. Her perfume is spicy and youthful, not flowery like a grandmother’s.
“I thought you were Mr. Sartori,” Kit says.
“What happened?” Lu peers into the apartment, expecting to see water gushing from the ceiling or worse.
“The sink. It’s clogged again. And it won’t open up no matter what I do. I plunged. I prayed. I used enough Drano to blow up Brooklyn.”
“If I see Tony, I’ll tell him to get up here and fix it immediately.”
“Thanks.” If anybody has an in with the landlord, it’s Aunt Lu. After all, she is a blood relative.
Aunt Lu pulls on her gloves. “I was wondering if you were busy this afternoon. I’d love to have you up for tea.”
She has never invited Kit up to her place. They both know and live by the unwritten rules of apartment dwelling. It’s best to keep a distance from neighbors in a small building; cordial greetings by the mailbox are acceptable, but beyond that it gets dicey, since there is nothing worse than a fellow tenant who stops by too much, chats too long, and borrows things. Kit says, “Thanks, but I’m writing. Maybe we can do it another time.”
“Sure, whenever you can, you let me know. I’ve been cleaning out my apartment, and I have lots of things I think you might like”—Lu looks around the apartment—“or could use.”
Kit reconsiders. Nothing is more alluring than a free indoor flea market without other customers to beat to the prizes. And Aunt Lu reminds Kit of her own grandmother. She also seems self-sufficient and has an air of discernment, something Kit would like to cultivate. How many women can wear an enormous enamel dragonfly brooch and pull it off? “Maybe I can make it around four.”
“I would love that!” Lu says, smiling. “See you then.”
“How ya doin’, Aunt Lu?” Tony Sartori asks as he climbs the stairs to Kit’s apartment.
“I’m fine, but Kit’s drain has seen better days.” Aunt Lu winks at Kit as Mr. Sartori enters the apartment.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s always something around here,” he grouses.
Lu grabs the hand railing and makes her way down the narrow stairwell. It’s early October and not too chilly outside, maybe fifty degrees, but Lu is already wearing her full-length mink coat, which drags the stairs behind her like the cape of a duchess. No matter the temperature, from September to June, Aunt Lu wears that mink coat.
“Come on in.” Kit need not invite him, since he’s already in the bathroom. “Aunt Lu’s a pretty lady,” she tells him, hoping to score some points.
“You kiddin’ me? In her day, she was a looker. They say she was the most bee-yoo-tee-ful gal in the Village.”
“Yep. You said you had a leak.”
“A clog. In the bathroom sink,” Kit corrects him.
“Again?” he says in a tone that implies it’s Kit’s fault. Tony Sartori is a small man with white hair and black eyebrows that look like thick hedges. He looks enough like Gepetto, the gentle cobbler in Pinocchio, to make Kit feel safe, but his vocal tone is pure New York rasp, which scares her a little.
Kit laughs nervously. “Sorry. You know I spend my nights stuffing the drain with olive pits so you have to spend your days fixing it.”
Tony Sartori looks as though he may yell, but he smiles instead. “Remain calm, Miss Pennsylvania. I’ll fix it.”
Kit grins weakly but knows better. He’ll plunge the sink and then wrap some crappy tape around the hole in the pipe and return in two weeks when the sticky stuff comes undone and she has another flood.
“We might have to get a plumber this time,” he says from under the sink.
“Hallelujah!” Kit claps her hands together joyfully.
Sartori grips the sink and pulls himself to a standing position. Kit’s bathroom is wallpapered floor to ceiling with rejection letters from every regional theater in the nation, from Alaska Rep to the Wyoming Traveling Players. They are all variations of the same message: good characters, good dialogue, but “you don’t know how to tell a story, Ms. Zanetti.” Tony Sartori reads one and shakes his head. “Don’t you ever want to give up? I mean, with letters like these, what’s the point?”
“I’m getting better,” Kit tells him.
“Maybe you are. But evidently there aren’t a lot of people out there in the theater world who think you can write a play.” Sartori shrugs. “Besides, what is the theater anymore? It’s not like it was. It used to be cheap and wholesome, dancing girls and good music. Now it’s too damn expensive. They herd you in like cows, and then the seats are so small, you get a blood clot in your leg before the first song is over. My wife loves that Phantom of the Opera show. I thought it was all right. To me it’s just a guy in a mask scaring a girl with a good figure and then singing about it.”
“The reviews are in!” Kit says cheerfully. She is used to the barbs, criticisms, and comparisons that come with her chosen profession. Playwriting as a career is pathetic. A writer can’t make a living, and in this culture, plays are about as relevant as glassblowing or whittling forks out of wood. Kit will keep these thoughts to herself, since the last thing she needs is an artistic standoff with Tony Sartori.
“That’s just my opinion.” Mr. Sartori spins the roll of duct tape on his index finger and goes to the door. “Can you hold off using the sink for a while?”
“How long? You know I do an intense beauty treatment each night, and it requires running water to make the thick paste that I trowel on to prevent premature wrinkles.”
“That must be quite a sight. Use the kitchen sink for now.”
“Yes, sir.” Kit smiles. “Mr. Sartori?”
“Do you ever think anything I say is funny? Even just a little?”
Tony Sartori closes the door behind him, and Kit hears him chuckle from the other side.
The Pink Teacup on Grove Street has the best coconut cake in the city. Made from scratch, it’s a yellow cake so moist, for a moment it seems like it may not have cooked through. The batter is full of tiny pineapple chips, and the icing is butter cream whipped so light that the coconut curls sink into it. Juanita, the cook, likes Kit because she raved about the cake in an online magazine piece. Whenever Kit passes by, Juanita cuts her a slab for free. Today Kit takes two slices, one for herself and one for Aunt Lu. As she walks back toward home, she makes a mental note to add some dishes to the article she is writing for Time Out, “Best Food in the Village.” The articles don’t pay much, but the perks are fabulous—free food in her favorite restaurants. So far her list includes:
Best Breakfast: the weekender at Pastis, on Ninth Avenue—includes a basket of sticky buns, chocolate pané, cocoa bread, and nut loaf followed by scrambled eggs with crispy home fries made with onions and butter.
Best Lunch: the hamburger at Grange Hall, on the corner of Commerce and Barrow, with a glass of robust red wine.
Best Sandwich: the tuna salad with a delicate paste of avocado and sliced tomato at Elephant and Castle on Greenwich Avenue.
Best Dinner: Stefano’s spaghetti pomodoro at Valdino West on Hudson Street.
Best Comfort Food: garlic mashed potatoes at Nadine’s on Bank Street.
Kit’s neighborhood is often host to small literary tour groups who wander around with their guidebooks, pointing out the brownstones where Bret Harte and e. e. cummings lived, and the bar where Dylan Thomas raised his last glass before passing out in a booth and meeting his maker. Kit imagines creating an Eating Tour of the Village. Literature vs. a good sandwich. She has a hunch her tour would draw larger crowds.
Back home, Kit places the slices of cake in a Tupperware container and settles down to work. It takes all of her willpower not to eat the coconut cake before her four o’clock tea with Aunt Lu. She knows she will spend most of the afternoon circling it like a lonely hawk hovering over a platter of steak tartare in the desert. Of course, this is what writers do when they’re not writing: they walk in circles around food and decide whether or not to eat it, as if taking a bite will somehow make a bit of dialogue work or help create a missing scene (it never does). This is why the Weight Watchers meetings at Fourteenth Street and Ninth Avenue are packed with women writers, including Kit, who has reached her goal weight twice in the last year. Eating and writing are the husband and wife of creativity.
Promptly at four o’clock Kit climbs the stairs to Aunt Lu’s apartment, feeling triumphant about her two gorgeous uneaten slices of coconut cake. She hopes hot tea and something sweet will get them through the visit, since she can’t imagine what she and Aunt Lu will talk about.
Like most New Yorkers who live in walk-ups, Kit has never gone above her own floor. Lu’s fifth-floor landing has charm, and there’s a small skylight over a metal ladder that leads to the roof, resembling a periscope on a submarine. Kit has always wanted to check out the view, but the lease forbids tenants to go on the roof. The more Kit thinks about it, the more she realizes that Tony Sartori is stricter than her parents ever were. But it is worth a little suffering to live on Commerce Street.
“Aunt Lu?” Kit calls out. The door is propped open with a black iron kitten.
“Come in, darling.”
Kit eases the door open slowly. “I brought . . .” She looks around the chintz wonderland in awe. Every corner, nook, cranny, and wall is filled with stuff.
“What, dear?” Lu says from the kitchen.
“Cake,” Kit blurts. “From the Pink Teacup. It’s really good. I wrote about it. It’s fresh daily. I hope you like it.”
“I’ve been there many times. The food is excellent.”
Aunt Lu answers the whistling teakettle in her tiny kitchen while Kit does a full turn and takes in the expanse. The walls are high, and much of the ceiling is covered by a large skylight that slants down, making an eave to a door that leads to the terrace. It has begun to rain, and as the drops hit the glass, they tinkle like music. Aunt Lu’s canopy bed is covered by a chenille bedspread, white with shaggy violets on scalloped trim. The furniture is precious and frilly: a pale blue velvet love seat and two chintz slipper chairs with a pattern of irises. The coffee table holds a collection of silver mint-julep cups filled with tiny silk flowers.
“I have a lot of stuff, don’t I?” Aunt Lu says from the kitchen, chuckling.
“Yes, but it’s all . . .” Kit struggles to describe what she sees. “Interesting. Like you’ve lived—I mean, live—an interesting life.”
“Look around. Enjoy.”
Kit skirts the furniture carefully. Every flat surface is covered with knickknacks—two pink ceramic poodles with a gold chain connecting them, tiny vases of Venetian glass, a jeweled letter opener, years of collected clutter, bad gifts, inherited bric-a-brac, and sale items too cheap to resist. Even the wallpaper says, “Old lady lives here,” with its fat cabbage roses on a crisscross trellis. Kit feels overwhelmed, as though she is standing in the middle of someone’s hope chest, among layers and layers of stuff that has meaning but no purpose.
Kit turns and faces the long wall of the apartment. It is lined with red and white department-store gift boxes, each one with swirly letters that say, “B. Altman’s.” The boxes at the top have been faded by the sun, so their red is more brown than the boxes stacked underneath.
In the corner next to the wall of boxes is a small end table dressed with a lace doily. Arranged atop are several photographs in ornate silver frames. In the center is an eight-by-ten color photograph of a beautiful girl in a strapless gold lamé gown. The color in the photo is intense and saturated, like that of an old movie still. The young woman in the picture is around twenty-five, her heart-shaped face creamy pink, her full lips in a light pink pout. Her almond-shaped eyes are set off by long black eyelashes and perfectly sculpted eyebrows, making her seem Egyptian or Italian. Something exotic. “Who’s the knockout?” Kit asks.
“That’s me,” Aunt Lu tells her. “When I was about your age.”
“Really?” Kit says, then immediately apologizes for her tone. “I didn’t mean that like it sounded. Of course it’s you. That’s your face, for sure.”
“No, no, I’m an old lady now, and that’s over. It took awhile for me to accept that. It’s not easy to let go of your youth, believe me.”
“You would be on magazine covers today with your face. And that body! I write for magazines sometimes, and they look for models who have that.”
“Have what, dear?”
“That quality. That golden kind of beauty, where each feature is perfect and it adds up to something original. Your eyes are a color of blue I’ve never seen before. And your lips, they’re a cupid’s bow. And I don’t mean to sound funny, but your nose is the best I’ve ever seen; it’s straight, and the tip goes up a little. That’s a feat for us Italian girls. Sometimes we end up with real honkers.”
Aunt Lu laughs. “Well, thank you.”
“No, no, it’s true.”
Lu takes the photograph from Kit and looks at it. “What a night that was. New Year’s Eve at the Waldorf. The McGuire Sisters rang in 1951 with me, my boss, Delmarr, and my mother and father at a front table at the foot of the stage. That was one of the best nights of my life.”
“You’re breathtaking,” Kit says.
“I was just lucky,” Lu says, then adds, “You’re a pretty girl, too.”
“Thanks. But my grandmother always says it doesn’t matter what a woman does to look young, when we hit seventy, we all wind up looking like Mrs. Santa Claus.”
Aunt Lu laughs. “It sounds like I’d get along fine with your grandmother. Come sit down.” She places a silver tray with the cake, the teacups, a small pot of tea, sugar, and creamer on a side table.
Kit leans back in the chair, which is so soft, the cushions must be filled with down. She pours cream in her tea while she tries to think of what to say next. “Is your real name Lucy?”
“No. Lucia.” Aunt Lu says her name softly, with a perfect Italian accent.
“Loo-chee-uh,” Kit repeats. “Like the opera?”
Aunt Lu smiles, and Kit notices a deep dimple in her right cheek. “Papa called me Lucia di Lammermoor.”
“What did he do?”
“He owned the Groceria.”
“On Sixth Avenue?” Kit leans forward in amazement. The Groceria is revered as an authentic Italian market and is therefore one of the biggest tourist traps in the city. It features all the best imported staples, including Tuscan olive oil, fresh pastas, and hanging salamis from every region. It sells cheeses from around the globe, and mozzarella cheese made fresh daily that floats in tubs of clear water like golf balls. The store is known for its elaborate displays of breads, meats, and fish.
“Do you still own it?”
Aunt Lu frowns. “No, dear. It was sold about twenty years ago. The family business is now centered around managing apartment buildings.”
“Tony Sartori owns other buildings?” Kit can’t believe that the king of duct tape would have other properties.
“He and his brothers. Tony is a real piece of work. So impatient. That temper. The boys today are nothing like my father. Sometimes they remind me of my brothers, but my brothers had respect for the family. Today I’m lucky if they remember I live up here. I know old people aren’t terribly interesting to young people, but I am, after all, their aunt, and their only connection to their father’s people.”
Kit nods, feeling a little guilty. She hadn’t been too excited about spending any time up here, either.
Aunt Lu continues, “Tony is the eldest son of my eldest brother, Roberto. Of course, my brother has been dead for many years.”
“So, how many of you were there growing up?”
“I had four older brothers. I was the baby.”
“What happened to them?”
“They’re all gone. I’m the last of the original Sartoris. I miss them, too. Roberto, Angelo, Orlando, and Exodus.”
“Great names. Exodus. Were you all named after opera characters?”
“Just two of us.” Aunt Lu smiles. “Do you like the opera?”
“My grandmother does, and she passed it along to me. I’ve offered to burn CDs of her record albums, and she won’t let me. She likes to stack them on her record player and let them drop and play through, scratches and all. Gram thinks the scratches make the music better.”
Aunt Lu refills Kit’s teacup. “You know, Kit, when you’re old, you like to hold on to all the little things that meant something to you. It feels comfortable and right. Let her have her old ways. They’re her ways, you understand?”
“Yes, I do. Is that why you live in your nephew’s building? Or is the Sartori family holding out to make a big sale on the building, and then you’ll cash out and move uptown with a view of Central Park?”
“Sure, sure. I’m holding out for my view of the park.” Aunt Lu smiles.
“I don’t blame you. You should get something out of living here. The place isn’t exactly maintained, but I don’t like to complain. I’m afraid Mr. Sartori would throw me out.”
“I know the feeling,” Aunt Lu says quietly.
“Of course, my place is in worse shape than yours. My bathroom wall is ready to cave in.”
“How should they know how to take care of these properties when everything they have was handed to them? I worked my whole life, so I know the value of things.”
“When did you stop working?”
“I retired in 1989 when B. Altman’s closed. Of all the employees, I had been there the longest, since 1945. They even gave me an award.” Lucia picks up an engraved crystal paperweight off the coffee table and hands it to Kit.
“This is kind of like a perfect-attendance certificate in high school.”
“That’s exactly right.”
Kit returns the award to its place on the table. “You were there so long. You must have liked your job.”
“Oh, I loved it.” As Aunt Lu remembers, her face is transformed. Beneath the distinguished older woman she is now, Kit can see the young woman with moxie and beauty. Kit is ashamed that she tried to come up with an excuse to avoid this cup of tea. After all, Lucia Sartori is no Greenwich Village kook like the guy on Fourteenth Street who dresses up like Shakespeare and walks through Washington Square Park broadcasting sonnets. Kit looks over into the alcove where Lucia’s mink coat hangs on a dress mannequin. The sleek black fur looks almost new in what little light is coming through the windows. The rain has stopped and left behind a late-afternoon sky the color of a gray pearl.
“Aunt Lu? May I call you Lucia?”
“I’ve always wondered, since you wear it a lot, what’s the deal with the mink coat?”
Lucia looks off into the alcove. “The mink coat is the story of my life.”
“Well, Lucia, if it’s not too much trouble, can you tell me the story?” Kit picks up her cup of tea and settles back in her chair as Lucia begins.