DUTY-BOUND

NEW YORK CITY, 1920

“Manga il cibo sul tuo piatto, Sophia, o lo mangerai dal pavimento.”

(“Eat the food on your dish, Sophia, or you will eat it off the floor.”)  

Without changing her expression or taking her huge brown eyes off her father Vincenzo’s face, three year old Sophia picked up a meatball, extended her arm over the side of her high chair and very calmly let it drop to the floor. 

Silence. Everyone sat in suspended animation as Vincenzo deliberately put down his knife and fork and removed the napkin which was tucked into the neck of his shirt. Slowly he stood up, went behind Sophia’s chair and grabbed the back of her dress. He lifted her up and holding her feet with his other hand, lowered her face to the floor. Sophia’s mouth touched the meatball and she turned her face away, but Vincenzo pushed her face into the food, forcing her to take it into her mouth. Satisfied, he sat her back in her chair, returned to his seat and resumed eating. Sophia languidly chewed the meatball. 

Hesitantly everyone resumed eating except Sophia’s mother Francesca who sat watching her daughter. At the end of the meal as the women cleared the table, Francesca placed a napkin over her daughter’s mouth so she could dispose of the uneaten meatball. “Mai più, Sophia. Fai il tuo dovere!” Francesca said. (“Never again, Sophia. Do your duty!”)

Francesca was a frail woman and as Sophia grew she helped her while Vincenzo worked 12 hours a day on construction. When Sophia was 11, Francesca came down with a terrible case of scarlet fever which affected her heart and kidneys and left her housebound. Early every morning Sophia would cook breakfast for the family and pack lunch for her father before she left for school. At lunchtime she would come home to check on Francesca and make something for them to eat before going back to school. After school she would stop at the pharmacy to buy Francesca’s medicine. Sometimes she would surprise her mother with a piece of her favorite candy. First she would care for her mother, then cook dinner before her father came home from work. When dinner was finished she would do her homework and get ready for bed. Since Francesca was sick, Vincenzo slept in Sophia’s room while she slept on the small sofa. It was the right thing to do – her duty – because her father worked so hard and needed his rest. 

Eventually the family began struggling financially. Vincenzo decided that it would be best if Sophia left school and took a job in a sewing factory. Sophia would have preferred to stay in school, but she knew it was her duty to help the family. Francesca’s sisters would take turns checking on her while Sophia was at work. Occasionally they would bring food but they all had large families and were struggling themselves. Sophia still woke up very early to make breakfast and prepare lunch for herself, Vincenzo and Francesca. She worked from 8:00 until 6:00, then came home to cook dinner, clean up and care for her mother. It was a hard life but Sophia knew it was her duty. 

Sophia was an excellent seamstress and her work was always done quickly and perfectly. In the time it took the others to sew one blouse, she completed four. And because her work was beyond compare, she earned more money. She was promoted to making dresses and suits and the other girls were jealous, calling her “your majesty” and “princess”. One girl was so envious of Sophia she began working hurriedly and carelessly, accidentally cutting off most her pinky with the large shears. It was not Sophia’s fault but everyone treated her like it was. 

One Sunday after Mass Sophia’s cousin Gaetano introduced her to his friend Paolo Rossi. By now Sophia was 20 and had never been on a date. She was too busy doing her duty. The young couple were immediately attracted to each other, began dating and married in 1940, just after the start of the war. One year later their first baby was born and fortunately men with children were not being drafted so Paolo was able to remain at home. Tragically, the baby developed nephritis and died at the age of two – and a grieving father, now childless, was drafted. 

Sophia was devastated; no husband, no baby. She devoted all her time to caring for Francesca. The days were grim but thankfully Paolo returned home safely and two more babies followed – healthy girls. The young family, Francesca and Vincenzo moved to a house in the Bronx and Paolo found work in a mechanic’s shop while Sophia stayed at home with the girls and her mother.  Five years later Francesca died and Vincenzo became ill. Of course the ever-dutiful Sophia  cared for him until his death. 

In 1970 Paolo suffered his first heart attack. Three more followed over the years. He developed aortic and abdominal aneurysms and struggled with emphysema and bronchitis until his death in 1996. Sophia cared for him as a dutiful wife for all those years.  

Dear readers, in case you haven’t realized by now I was one of those little baby girls born to Sophia and Paolo. Throughout my childhood and youth, my mother was constantly busy cleaning, cooking, sewing. She was a dutiful mother and took very good care of us, but I never felt a true mother’s love. 

The first time I met my boyfriend’s mother, she was ironing. She immediately stopped her work, brewed a pot of coffee and placed a crumb cake on the table. We sat and talked for hours. That was an afternoon of fun and laughter and I felt the love in that room. I married that boy whose mother did everything out of love, not out of a sense of duty. 

Sophia died in 2010. On her headstone was intricately carved her life-long creed: “FAI IL TUO DOVERE”.

NAR © 2019

IT’S A DOG’S LIFE

“Where are we going, Charlie? Huh, huh?? Where are we going?” 

“I thought we’d go to the dog park. Would you like that, Earl?” 

“The dog park? THE DOG PARK?? OMG! I’m so excited I think I’m gonna pee!” 

“You better not! Now settle down and stop licking my face. I’m trying to drive. And quit running around the car or we’re going home.” 

“I’ll be good, I promise. You brought the frisbee, Charlie? Oh, man, this is gonna be so great! I can fetch sticks and roll in the leaves and if I’m really lucky you-know-who will be there.” 

“Yes, Earl. That cute beagle you’ve been eyeing. What’s her name – Misty?” 

“Yup, yup, that’s it Charlie – Misty! ** SIGH **  Hold on, Charlie, this isn’t the way to the dog park. You gotta turn around. We’re going the wrong way! Charlie, turn around!” 

“It’s ok, Earl. We have to make one stop first. Why don’t you just lie down and rest. We’ll be there soon.” 

“Ok, Charlie. I’ll just lie here on the back seat and save my energy for … hey, why is my crate in the car, Charlie? We never take my crate to the park. Why did you bring my crate?? Why, Charlie? What’s going on?”

“Earl, sit! Good boy. Look, here’s your chew toy.” 

** CHOMP CHOMP ** 

“Ok, Earl, we’re here. Let’s go buddy.” 

“Hey, I recognize this place. It’s the veterinarian’s office! Why are we at the vet, Charlie? I don’t need shots and my nails don’t need trimming. I don’t wanna be here. I wanna go to the park! Charlie, why are you taking my crate out of the car? Why do we need the crate? Charlie, I got a bad feeling about this.” 

“Come here, boy. Sit next to me and listen, ok? You’re my best bud and I’ve never lied to you but I didn’t tell you the truth today. I’m sorry. We were never going to the park. I only said that because I didn’t want to upset you. We’re at the vet because it’s time.” 

“Time? Time for what, Charlie? Am I sick, Charlie? Am I DYING? That’s it, isn’t it? I’m dying!! CHAAAAARLIE!! I don’t wanna die!” 

“Calm down, buddy.You’re not sick and you’re certainly not dying. You’re here today to get snipped.”

“Snipped?” 

“Yeah – neutered.”

“NEUTERED?!? ** HOWL ** I’d rather be dead! Why, Charlie, why?? What about Misty? That means I’ll never … you know.” 

“Misty? Of course you’ll be able to … you know. You’ll just be shooting blanks.” 

“Cmon, Charlie. Can’t we please just go home? I don’t wanna do this. Being a dog without balls is a bitch, metaphorically speaking, of course.” 

“It’ll be over before you know it, Earl. Get in your crate now, boy. We’ll go to the dog park in a couple of days and Misty will be there waiting for you.”  

“A COUPLE OF DAYS?!? ** WHINE ** This sucks, Charlie! Betrayed by my best friend.” 

“Sorry, Earl. Sometimes life’s a bitch, ain’t it?”

NAR © 2019

ON THE BRINK

Today she would find out if her entire life was a lie.

“Where to, Mrs. Carmichael? Shall I call for your car?” asked her ever-attentive doorman, Harold. 

Not today, thank you. Just walking up to Brooks Brothers to buy an anniversary present for my husband. It’s our 15th.”[Note to self: stop at your psychologist’s office first]. 

“Congratulations! You have yourself a nice day.” 

Claire Carmichael smiled at Harold and walked the short distance to her therapist’s office on Earl Street. Ringing Dr. Brink’s doorbell, she waited for his ubiquitous snobbish greeting of “Enter!” 

“Welcome, Claire. Last time you were here we discussed your suspicions that Jeremy was having an affair. Why don’t we pick up from there” he suggested. 

Clearing her throat and adjusting her skirt she began. “I’m no longer convinced Jeremy’s cheating on me. I’m not saying that he’s never had affairs but something is different. Things have changed between us. They’re better. Jeremy’s calmer, more attentive, grounded. He’s home every night by 6:00 and we enjoy our weekends together. No more overnight out-of-town business trips and I’m actually happy for the first time in years.” 

“Interesting” Dr. Brink acknowledged. “And to what do you attribute this change in Jeremy’s character?” 

“We had a heart-to-heart the other night and he confided in me that he’s been having panic attacks for quite some time. He finally started seeing a psychiatrist who’s helping him tremendously. He’s on medication and skips lunch twice a week to see his doctor.” 

“And you believe him?” 

I do” Claire replied, uncomfortable with his skepticism. 

Did Jeremy happen to mention his psychiatrist’s name?” 

Feeling rather nonplussed she replied “No, he didn’t and I didn’t ask. That would be prying and information I didn’t need to know. Now I really must get going. It’s our wedding anniversary and I have plans to make.” 

“Good luck, Claire. Ever vigilant!” he called after her. 

When Claire stepped outside there was a chill in the air and leaves were swirling about. That session unnerved her and she lingered for a while smoking a cigarette wondering what Dr. Brink meant when he said “Ever vigilant.” Muttering “shrinks!”, she wrapped her coat tightly around herself and quickly walked to Brooks Brothers. She chose a pair of monogrammed cuff links; they were elegant and ridiculously expensive but Claire wanted Jeremy to know how proud she was of him. 

Leaving the store Claire decided to go across the street to their favorite French restaurant and arrange for a special anniversary dinner to be delivered to their apartment. Looking up Claire’s heart skipped a beat and she felt dizzy. 

Exiting the restaurant was Jeremy, his arm around a captivating young woman. They were laughing, embracing and kissing as they walked. 

Disheartened and furious, Claire threw the cuff links into a trash can and hailed a taxi. 

“Where to, your highness?” The driver was uncouth with a big mouth, both physically and metaphorically. He chomped noisily on cigar and Claire could smell his disgusting breath from the back seat. But he probably never cheated on his wife, she thought. 

Just drive” was all she said and he smiled greedily as he flipped the meter. 

NAR © 2019

Originally written in 2019 and revised on 9/6/22 for Fandango’s Story Starter #62.