Never Judge a Book By its Cover
The gravel made a companionable, earthy crunch as Rose walked from Cottage Bay's library in the early spring twilight. Just before a secluded forest area along her homeward route, she passed the row of small rental cottages. For the past two weeks, there stood the big man from Chicago. What was his name? Tommy, Toby, or Tony? She knitted her brows, trying to remember what someone said earlier that week. Locals also said he was wise guy come to cause trouble. He dwarfed the covered porch, smoking a cigar. The glow lit up his face.
Tonight, Rose dared to look at him and said "good evening."
"Nice night for a walk," he replied, brown eyes crinkling kindly.
The Great Depression was in full swing and people were critical of newcomers. Rose felt abashed for her unfair judgement based on others' gossip. She looked down at her worn brown loafers and entered the forest walk. The shoes didn't really go with her grey cotton dress, but she had a long day and the shoes were comfortable.
Her mind drifted back to that Black Tuesday a few months earlier. She never did get those new shoes.
A short way into the forest, Rose heard twin steps, like hers, behind her. Was the Italian man from Chicago following her? Deciding to be brave, she whipped around, arms encircling her small load of library books like a shield.
"Hello, Rose, said a dark and menacing voice. But it wasn't the man from Chicago. Marko Sutich stood there, glowering at her lecherously, as if he were expecting something. The smell of bad whiskey assaulted her senses and she thought that it was ironic, given the fact that there was a national prohibition on the sale of alcohol. Which was why this fisherman's daughter and her father decided to distill their own.
Hundreds of gallons of it, in fact, still sat aging in fresh American oak barrels in the hidden dirt-floor cellar of their home. The only problem was that when Rose's father died from that heart attack that fateful Black Tuesday after Thanksgiving, he left her without a plan. He was to sell this first batch of whiskey through his fishing contacts. She simply just didn't know what to do with it. The question haunted her day and night. What Rose knew for certain, was that during this season people weren't paying a lot of money for freshly caught fish but, sure as the weather changes, they would put down whatever they had to buy bootleg whiskey.
Rose's job as a Cottage Bay school teacher by day and now her second job as the afternoon librarian had kept her family afloat since her father died. Rose's brother, Collin, was only 12 years old and while he helped rose so much around the house, there was little he could do to provide for the family. Her mother, Sanja, took to her bed right after the funeral, only leaving that dark cave of grief for brief moments. It was a fight to clean her up and wash the bedding every few days.
And, it was a fight facing Rose, in the twilight. Marko Sutich wasn't calling on her to ensure safe passage home. His drunken, angry smirk told her that, clear as if he'd announced his intentions aloud.
"Marko, you need to go home," Rose said. "I told you already, I don't want to see you."
"Oh, Rosie, you're going to do much more than see me," Marko leered, his threat wove heavily around her like a noose. "After I'm done with you, it will take days to pick the gravel out of your backside. You'll have no other choice than to be my wife," and he spat the words in his drunken rage.
"I'm never marrying you," she hissed at him. His lecherous vow made her mad. He went too far, threatening her with rape in order to become his wife.
"Then you can join Maggie Flynn working at the Seafarer's club, that's all you'll be good for." To punctuate his threat, Marko took a huge stride and shoved her, hard, onto the gravel pathway.
As Rose struggled to regain her feet beneath her, Marko unbuckled his belt and begin unzipping his pants. That's all he did, because a huge fist pounded itself into Mark's jaw, sending him and his pants, which were already sagged halfway down his legs, caterwauling end over end.
Marko crawled up, zipping his pants and buckling his belt, spitting on the gravel. Antonio stood in between them, his bulk becoming a formidable wall. Rose noticed that he didn't have the refined features of what the movies showed of Italian mobsters. He was more like what she saw around her little fishing village filled with Croatian and Serbian immigrants.
"Do you want more?" Antonio asked, throwing his still-glowing cigar onto the path and crunching it like Rose knew he would do to Marko's head.
Marko just turned and ran away, hollering over his shoulder, "I'm gonna get you, WOP," using the slur that stood for With Out Papers. His drunken, weak threat made Antonio chuckle to himself.
"You just do that. Come by any time. I'll be looking forward to it."
Antonio turned to face Rose. He tenderly cradled her elbows as he helped raise her from the gravel pathway. "You alright?" he asked, softly. It was almost a whisper.
"I'm. Just. Fine," she said with a stiff upper lip, willing herself not to cry. She focused on dusting her skirt and straightening her dress from its dirty crumple of a few moments earlier. Antonio knew she fought for her composure, and looked her over with a smile, offering his elbow in a gentlemanly flourish. Rose smiled back gratefully, and reached for his arm.
"Of course you are," he agreed. "Now, let me walk you home."
"My brother will be waiting for me," she explained but at the same time accepting his kind offer. "Please don't say anything. It would upset him too much."
"Well, I should talk with your father about it," he advised.
"You could visit his headstone over at Cottage Bay's cemetery," she said, with more than a small amount of irony in her voice. "And mama is still in bed, so, she's not much help, either. It's been a tough winter and this would probably break her and my younger brother, Collin," and she hesitated. "And, truthfully, me, as well."
"I don't want you to be broken. You, or your family," he said, earnestly. "I will never tell them what happened, but in exchange, I'm your new escort. Just to make sure that he doesn't threaten you again."
Rose sized him up and made a decision. Her parents had always taught her to never judge a book by its cover. "I'm Rose Nicovich," she said, as if by giving her name she signaled agreement with his offer.
"Antonio Taramare, though some people call me Tony," he said, kindly, and offered his hand which Rose shook, sealing their arrangement.
"What brings you here, Antonio?" Rose asked, using his full name. It just fit him, she thought to herself. "Folks just don't come to Cottage Bay," she said as she leaned over to pick up the library books in a pile next to her.
"Maybe I came to fish?" he said, with a laugh in his voice.
"Maybe." Rose answered, her tone sharing humorous disbelief.
"What?" he laughed, his head tilting upward. "You don't think I can fish?" he said with more than a little Chicago wise guy lilt. The pair continued on their path in a comfortable silence.
He reached over and gently gathered the books from her. "Let me carry these. All part of the service, milady."
"Oh, well, a fisherman and a gentleman," she said, emphasizing the conjunction.
"I suppose I don't look or sound like the fishing type."
"I don't think there really is a fishing type."
"My grandfather gathered his family and fled his fishing village, Trieste, to escape the fighting of World War I," Antonio explained to her as they walked along the forest path.
"Oh, so your family is from Northeast Italy," she said. "I read about how that part of Italy used to be part of the Hapsburg Monarchy and made up of Slovenians." Rose tipped her cards. Librarians and teachers knew a little bit about a lot of things.
"Well, we are and we aren't. That part of the world has always had its own identity. But, maybe like your father, my father loved the sea."
"Oh, my father did love it," Rose said. "And, he shared his love for it with his brother, my Unlcle Tomo and our families. They live just down the street. Well, he does, my Aunt Sara passed away years ago in the flu epidemic. My cousins, Tomo, Jr. and his youngest son, who is named Sebastijan after my father, fish with him and my dad and Collin, or at least they did. They have an older sister, Anna, who is just a couple years younger than me."
"We left behind a big family in Trieste. Like yours, they fished together for generations. When his father took them away from the sea and brought them to America, my father, Giovanni, lived his life searching to find a life like it, here. Before I was born, my father moved our family from New York to Chicago and settled near Lake Michigan. It was supposed to be for only one year. And, well, we just stopped, there." He looked down at the ground, as if it were the most interesting thing in the world. Rose could understand that. Talking about her father was also difficult. The loss was just too soon.
"He died just after the New Year," Antonio continued, after composing himself and clearing his throat.
"Just before he passed away, he asked me to come out west and look for the sea. So, after I felt mama was ready, that's what I did. I'm the last of her children not yet married, so I wanted to be sure she was looked after before I left."
"And, you came here," Rose said. "How did you think to look for Cottage Bay?"
"I just kept looking for a town and a people who made their lives around fishing," he said. "I started up North a ways. Found Poulsbo, but it was too much lefse-and-lutefisk and oom-pa-pa music for me."
Rose laughed at him poking fun at the Norwegian town up the peninsula by about 4o miles by car, and a much shorter distance by boat.
"Oh, lefse is delicious," she assured him. "When it's warm, you can smear it with butter and cinnamon sugar, then roll it up and eat it; just one taste and you'd change your mind."
"Well, you'll never get me to eat lutefisk again so just forgetaboutit," Antonio said that last phrase, emphatically, and sounding as Chicago Italian as Rose imagined they came. He even spoke with big arm gestures, by sweeping his hands outwards as if in exclamation.
"Duly noted," and Rose stifled a laugh. Antonio smiled back at her.
"I'm glad you are smiling. You are beautiful, and especially when you smile," he said, quietly. Rose blushed deeply. Maybe it was the compliment. Maybe the intimacy of his tone. After being saved from certain pain and anguish, Rose could be nothing but grateful. And, she was quietly remorseful for having not spoken to him sooner than just tonight on his front porch. He, too, was grieving for the loss of his own father. All the more acutely felt, she thought, having moved away from his family and friends. It was April; his father had been gone no more than four months. It was two months more freshly lost than her own father. She knew how it must still sting, like an open, raw wound.
They walked along with the wind gently shushing new leaves hanging on maple branches above them. As if in quiet accompaniment, the fir needles joined in. The sound made a melodious percussion alongside evening song birds. It was a clear twilight. Who said it always rained in Washington State? Stars twinkled through the trees and as they came into the clearing the pair could make out Collin waiting for his sister. He sat on the porch steps with the family dog, a retriever mix who panted and wagged his tail at Rose.
"I was getting worried about you," he said and stupid petting the dog. Clearly he took his role as the now man of the house seriously. Collin moved to grab something behind him and then kept his hands busy by working a baseball into a mitt he wore on his left hand.
"I'm sorry about that," Antonio said, with the utmost respect. "We just met and I was talking more than walking. Won't happen again."
"Well, Buddy and I were about to come looking for you," Collin said, trying to sound as grown up as possible for 12. The dog, hearing his name, stood up and made a woof sound, begging for a pet. Antonio reached forward and indulged him.
"This is Antonio Taramare," Rose said introducing him to her brother. "He just moved to town and I've invited him to have a late supper with us."
"You did?" Antonio blurted, surprised.
"I put that big black pot in the oven at four o'clock, just how you told me," Collin said, proudly.
"You three keep yourselves busy and I'll finish up getting dinner ready," Rose directed over her shoulder as she climbed the porch steps and glided into the house.
Collin just looked down, and continued working the baseball into his glove. Buddy sat next to him, looking expectantly at the ball. Clearly, he wanted to play.
"You just get that mitt?" Antonio asked, nodding at Collin.
"My dad gave it to me for my birthday, last November," Collin answered. "Haven't really had a chance to break it in yet and first game is week after next."
"Well, why don't I throw to you a bit," Antonio offered. "Nothing breaks in a new mitt better than catching the ball."
"Okay," Collin answered, shrugging his shoulders. Antonio couldn't tell if he really wanted to play a little catch with him, but he went with it anyway. He remembered what it was like to be 12. Baseball was pretty much what it was all about. Even when one was trying to act like it was no big deal.
So they took turns. Antonio would throw the ball in a solid line to Collin and, since Antonio didn't have a mitt with him, Collin would toss it back gentle enough for Antonio to catch it with his bare hands. Then he remembered something. "Hey, my dad had a mitt," he shot over his shoulder bounding up the porch and into the house. A few moments later he returned and tossed the mitt to Antonio.
They they played a game of catch, back and forth. Sometimes Antonio would lob the ball high up into the air, simulating a fly ball. Other times, he'd roll it on the dirt, like a grounder. It was silent except for when Antonio would call out words of encouragement, "nice catch" or "good eye". Every once in a while they would indulge Buddy and throw a ball for him, who never seemed to tire of the game. He barked happily as Antonio and Collin threw the ball back and forth to one another.
After a bit, Rose came out onto the porch wiping her hands with a dish towel. "Soup's on, if you can tear yourselves away from the pennant game," she laughed.
It was a hearty stew, even if there were little pieces of meat in it. Antonio specifically spooned for the potatoes, beans, and carrots and accepted a soft round bread roll. Collin tore into his dinner as if he hadn't eaten in a week. They talked about baseball, with Rose nodding to their conversation.
"Well, the Cubbies haven't won a pennant since 1908," Rose said, insetting herself in the conversation when it came to a lull as the boys chewed their food. "And, you're still a fan?"
Antonio was floored. She knew the game? The look on his face was funny to her and she laughed.
"Just because I'm a girl doesn't mean I don't follow baseball," she said, shaking her head. "It's 1930, for heavens sakes. I actually played softball in high school."
"Yeah, she's really good," Collin said, obviously proud of his sister.
"You cook like the top chef at Drake Brothers' and you love baseball," Antonio said. "What can't you do? Seriously?"
"Change the oil on our truck," Collin boasted. "But it's okay because I like to work on engines. Dad taught me."
"What's Drake Brothers'?" Rose asked, chewing thoughtfully on her bread roll.
A woof from the dog and his tail wagging at the door interrupted her question and called out that familiar guests had arrived. In the door came a tall man, a young woman about Rose's age, and two boys. Antonio guessed, rightly, it was family come a-calling.
"Oh, we're too early," the man said as he let himself in the front door.
"Not at all," Rose said as she wiped her hands with a napkin and waved them, all, to come in.
"Antonio, this is my Uncle Tomo, and my cousins, Anna, Tomo, junior, and young Sebastijan," she said, standing next to all of them.
"I'm not that young," Sebastijan boasted.
His dad rugged his hair, "It's just a figure of speech, Seb," Tomo said. "He was named for his uncle, my brother, Sebastijan, who was Rose and Collin's father. And that's how we've always called him." He reached forward to shake Antonio's hand and Antonio stood to greet him.
"Antonio Taramare, and I escorted Rose home from the library tonight," he said. "I apologize that I didn't call on you, first, to ask your permission." Antonio could tell that Tomo was sizing him up and everything hinged on being accepted by the family's newly assigned patriarch.
“I had a big bunch of books with me that I dropped on the way home,” Rose interjected. It was the truth. Sort of. “Antonio heard it from his porch and came to help me. I invited him to dinner to thank him.”
“Well, I made a peach cobbler and it was too much for just us,” Anna interjected. She was the little mother of their household and knew the burden Rose now carried. Tomo never remarried after their mother died. Anna stepped in, caring for the boys who were only three and just one year old when the Spanish flu took its toll on their mother. “One of the boys said they heard Collin playing catch and I figured you could use dessert with dinner,” and she winked at Rose conspiringly when no one was looking.
“Oh, you must live close by,” Antonio guessed. He was glad that Rose and Collin had family looking in on them. It explained why Marko had to wait for a moment he knew she would be alone to pounce on her.
“Just through the field, on the other side of the property,” Tomo junior, said, thumbing that-a-way.
“We were just finished with dinner,” Rose assured everyone. “Let’s go into the living room, everyone.”
“I’ll help Rose with the cobbler,” Uncle Tomo said, taking the dish from Anna. She said nothing and arched an eyebrow at her father.
“What? Can’t a man help out in the kitchen once in a while?” He said, with mock indignation.
“It would be a first,” Anna laughed at her dad.
“You wound me, young lady,” Tomo shot back as he walked toward the kitchen, following Rose.
As everyone bustled into the living room, Rose busied herself getting a pot of coffee brewing. Tomo came alongside and said, “Who is this man?”
Rose, who had come to rely on Tomo so much over the past six months, had no pretense with her uncle.
“He saved me from Marko, tonight,” she said, plainly.
“Saved you? What do you mean?” Tomo asked in disbelief.
“I mean,” she took a deep breath, steeling herself. “Marko came at me in the forest walk. Stinking drunk. He had already thrown me on the ground. If Antonio hadn’t been there…” she trailed off.
Tomo gathered her into his arms. He understood. Rumors had been rampant about Marko and Maggie Flynn a few years ago. Some said she’d gone to him, willingly. Others, who spent more time with Marko than they liked, felt differently about that.
But Marko’s brother, Aleksander, was the Cottage Bay Chief of Police. No one dared accuse Marko; especially when Maggie moved away for a time and then returned to say nothing about what happened. Maggie worked at the fisherman’s club; a private bar of sorts that skirted the rules of prohibition in a town whose residents openly disagreed with the law. Other than tending bar, since she returned Maggie kept to herself and was distant from her closest childhood friends, Rose and Anna.
Anna poked her head in the door, “Can I help with anything,” she asked, hopefully.
“Of course,” Rose said, wiping the corners of her eyes. “Take this tray out to everyone,” she pointed to the platter on the counter. “But would you put the little plates and forks on it? I’ll bring the coffee out in a moment.”
Tomo got there first, reaching for the plates, forks, and more napkins from the cupboards. He knew his brother’s family kitchen almost as well as his. He lifted the tray and assured Anna he had it covered then made his way into the living room.
Anna came into the kitchen and poked her head into the icebox, withdrawing cream and putting together a quick coffee service, including sugar and small spoons. She and her cousin had a lot of practice helping each other out in the kitchen. Nowadays, she helped almost as much at Roses’ home as her Aunt Sanja and Rose helped out at hers, starting from when her mother passed away.
“Thanks, Anna,” Rose said, genuinely.
“Oh, I just worried he was giving you the third degree,” she said, shushing her cousin. Truthfully, the girls, only two years apart in age, were more like sisters. Especially now, when Anna could give back to Rose the comfort and reassurance given to her when at 12 she lost her mother.
“He’s not that bad,” Rose laughed. “You know I’m glad you all are here.”
The girls brought coffee out into the formal living room to find the group of men and boys talking baseball while Antonio and Tomo dished out platefuls of peach cobbler.
“Well, I was only four years old when the Cubbies won the 1908 pennant,” Antonio was saying to the boys. “But my father took our whole family to the last game against the giants. It was something else, seeing the pitcher, three-finger Mordecai Brown, win the game like he did.”
“He had only three fingers?” Collin said, incredulous. “A pitcher with only three fingers?”
“It was just amazing,” said Tomo. “Your father and I used to try to pretend we were Brown and Johnny King when we played baseball.”
“Who was Johnny Kling?” Sebastijan asked, working Collin’s baseball into his glove.
“He hasn’t even answered the question about Brown and his three fingers,” Tomo Junior said.
As Rose and Anna poured coffee for the grownups, Antonio nodded in thanks for his, “just black, please,” he said to Anna when she offered him cream and sugar. “So, Mordecai was a farm boy and because of an accident with a farm machine, he lost part of two fingers. But, he spent years working to turn his disability into an advantage by perfecting a wicked curve ball. I remember watching as he relieved Jack Pfiester on the mound in that final game against the Detroit Tigers. I just knew the Cubbies would win the series.”
“What a memory,” Tomo Junior observed.
“Yes, it was. And, Johnny Kling was part of it.”
“How do you say?” Sebastijan asked.
“Well, from 1906 to 1910, the Cubbies won four National League titles and two world series. He was a big part of that, Noisy John, was.”
And they went one to talk about his role in chattering on the field and how the words shouted on-field made a big contribution to the psychology of the game. Anna gave a knowing look to Rose, and she winked, again. Rose smiled into her cup of coffee. This was good.
It was drawing to the end of the evening. Antonio knew it. He was the first to stand and make his apologies. “Well, tomorrow is another day. Probably time for me to turn in, much as I’d love to stay and talk baseball all night long.”
Tomo stood, next.
“Thank you,” he said. “It was a nice night and very nice to meet you, Antonio.”
“Well, Anna’s cobbler topped off a great meal. Haven’t eaten this well since leaving Chicago.”
“Charming. And diplomatic,” Anna observed, with more than just a little humor in her voice.
As they made their way out the door, two very large cats made their way into the house. Rose chuckled at the obvious surprise on Antonio’s face.
“This tortoise-shell colored one is Snap and the black and white one is Dragon,” Collin said, pointing at each of the two cats then picking up the tuxedo colored cat as he wended his way around Antonio’s legs. “Even though Snap is a girl, it’s Dragon who is really sweet.”
“They both rule the roost around here,” Rose said. “Buddy does their bidding, not the other way around.”
“Well, these are two of the biggest cats I think I’ve ever seen,” Antonio petted Dragon whose purr sounded like a small motor. “And this one does seem very nice.”
“And, they earn their keep,” Collin boasted. “A couple of times a week, we find dead mice on the porch. Rose and I think they are gifts and always thank them for their thoughtfulness.”
No one spoke about the fact that Sanja, Rose and Collin’s mother, stayed upstairs the entire evening. What they didn’t know was that she sat on the risers listening to everything spoken. It was the first time she’d ventured out of her room, un-coaxed, since her husband’s funeral six months prior.
The smell of cooking and coffee, and the laughter and talking, drew her out of her cave. She was disheveled. Raw. But, wiping her eyes, she sat listening to every word. Thinking. Sanja Nicovich was a thoughtful person.