Fiction / Carly Brown
:: The Window Bride ::
The day my sister Antonia turned fifteen, we took her to the window. It was late June and the street outside my uncle’s store smelled of vegetables gone mushy in the sun. Tin cans shone on the sidewalk by my feet, shiny as locust wings. I kicked one with my shoe, watching it bounce off a fire hydrant and roll underneath a black automobile parked nearby. Mamma would usually have scolded me for that, but she was busy retying the ribbon around Antonia’s braid and smoothing down her new dress. The dress was a lacy thing that reminded me of our nice tablecloth, the one Mamma only brought out at Easter. It looked like you could rip it apart easily.
There were several women coming out of Uncle’s store, carrying bags of lettuce and loaves of bread tucked under their arms, dabbing their brows with handkerchiefs and squinting in the sunlight. We pushed open the door and Uncle Salvatore came out from behind the counter to greet us, dressed smartly as ever in a white coat and stiff collar.
“Buongiorno, ladies,” he said, bowing to my sister and me, as though we were fine women out for an afternoon stroll. Antonia and I giggled at being called ladies, although I supposed she was one now.
He led us over to the storefront window where he kept boxes of panettone at Christmas and crates of squash in the fall. There was a single chair there now, on a little raised platform, next to a basket of lemons. Uncle’s store smelled like lemons that day, so he’d probably cut some open already to make lemonade. I liked his store: you could spin on the high stools or get Coca-Cola in a tall glass and drink it with a straw, or you could order a Root Beer Float instead and watch vanilla ice cream bobbing in dark liquid until it dissolved.
Antonia climbed up and sat down in the chair. She had her back to us so I could see drops of sweat sliding down her neck and disappearing into the lace. Mamma thanked Uncle again for letting us do this.
“Figurati,” my uncle said. It’s nothing. Then he smiled at me and pointed to a jar of candies wrapped in silver foil. “Seems like I ordered too many caramels this week, Rosalia. Can you help me with that?”
I plunged my hand into the jar. The foil squeaked as I plucked one out and popped it in my mouth, letting the sugar sparkle on my tongue.
Then I looked out the window and saw that, outside on the street, an older woman with a little boy in tow had stopped to stare at my sister through the glass. Her skin was wrinkled and browned like the inside of a walnut, like nonna before she died, and she had a blue silk scarf knotted under her chin. She looked Antonia up and down, perhaps with a grandson or nephew in mind.
My sister wasn’t pretty like the women in magazines, with their cloche hats stuffed with flowers. They all looked skyscraper tall and thin. My sister was short, with plump elbows and a round face. She was shy, unlike me, and getting her to talk was often like prying open an oyster shell. But she never complained about anything and, of the two of us, she was the best at cooking lasagna, not to mention the fact that, to my extreme envy, she had also recently memorized all the state capitals. But the old woman looking at Antonia now could see none of these things.
I watched her nod politely to my sister and carry on down the street.
Next came a man who looked a little younger than Father, maybe Uncle Salvatore’s age, with a nice suit and slicked-back hair glistening in the sun. He stopped in front of the window. I don’t know if Antonia was smiling at him, but he smiled at her before he walked away with his hands shoved in his pockets and his lips pursed together like he was whistling.
It was then that I realized my sister wasn’t going to sleep beside me anymore. Soon, I would walk to school on my own, brush my teeth on my own, sit in front of the radio, fiddling with the dial as it gurgled out static, on my own. Antonia would go live with a man like that slick-haired fellow. I would only see her at St Leo’s on Sundays. That was what happened when Lena Maggiore’s sister got married—Lena only saw her on Sundays now.
I turned away from the window and walked over to the shelf, noticing peaches piled up in a wicker basket. Two cents apiece, said a chalk sign in Uncle’s neat handwriting. I did some quick multiplication in my head. Two cents meant you could buy fifty peaches for one dollar. Or you could buy two hundred and fifty peaches for five dollars. Or you could buy one thousand peaches for twenty dollars. But nobody would waste twenty whole dollars on that many peaches.
I took one—its furry skin in my palm felt like a living thing. There were dents in the flesh where my fingers had grabbed it. Then, without thinking, I started squeezing. I squeezed and squeezed it until its juices ran down my knuckles, dripping down onto the wooden floor.
It wasn’t until I was squeezing so hard I could feel the seed in the middle starting to press into my palm that Mamma turned round—”Rosalia!” She startled me by crying out. “What are you doing? What are you doing?!” She swept over, swatting the seed out of my hand. It clattered to the ground. “Look at your dress,” she said, pointing to the sticky stains on the hem of it. “What were you thinking?” She turned to Uncle. “I am so sorry.” He waved away her apology, but she fished into her purse and pulled out three cents. The coins clinked as she laid them on the counter.
“That’s too much,” I murmured, but nobody seemed to hear.
The next morning, Antonia said she felt sick and didn’t want to go to school. Mamma didn’t mind, especially since Antonia had done so well yesterday and would be leaving school soon anyway. The families of two men had already visited, asking about my sister, but most likely it would be neither of them. Mamma said Antonia would marry a young man called Giuseppe Sunday who worked at Uncle’s in the storeroom.
I knew this boy. He always had powdered sugar on his nose because his family had a bakery, and he brought over trays of cannoli to sell at Uncle’s. They were not the best cannoli in town, but they were good. My mouth watered thinking of their crunchy gold shells filled with ricotta and chocolate chips. Giuseppe Sunday was shy like Antonia. Never spoke a word to me. I pictured them sitting across from each other, silent, sweating in the heat and staring at a tray of lasagna, gooey cheese bubbling like the lava that I had recently learned poured out of volcanoes.
Since Antonia was sick, I was sent to school on my own. I carried my books pressed against my chest, enjoying the sturdiness of my chalkboard and how the pages of the arithmetic book rippled in the wind. My teacher Mrs. Raggunti said I was quick with numbers and sometimes she called me up to demonstrate addition and subtraction on the chalkboard in front of the whole class. I took pride in my careful handwriting: my 3s all pretty and curled like the lacy hem of a dress. I took pride, too, in how quickly the answers bloomed in my head. But, in six years, I wouldn’t go to school anymore. In six years, I would be fifteen like Antonia and that meant sitting in Uncle Salvatore’s window and agreeing to marry someone like powdered-sugar nosed Giuseppe Sunday. I told myself that six years was a long time, but I wasn’t sure about that.
The wind picked up, carrying with it the sting of salt from the harbor, and I hugged my schoolbooks tighter into my chest. I tried to think of what my life would be like when I got married, but nothing came to mind. Other girls at school mused about what they might wear on their wedding day or what they hoped their husband would look like. Giulia Messina said that she hoped her husband would look just like Douglas Fairbanks, the star of Robin Hood we’d seen at the pictures last year. It’s not that I was opposed to getting married, exactly. You don’t oppose the sunset or the moon. They just are. They just happen. But I didn’t want to leave school.
I loved learning about numbers. And I loved counting up things in Uncle’s shop—cans of sardines, bags of flour. But the really neat thing about numbers was that, sometimes, you could use them to count up nothing. I asked Mrs. Raggunti in class once, when she’d made me divide thirty by five on the chalkboard, what the thirty stood for. “Thirty of what?” I had asked. At first she was confused, but then she said that it was just thirty, just a number. It could be thirty of anything: thirty dollars, or thirty girls, or thirty chicken eggs. The class laughed at this, but I thought it was swell. When you’re doing arithmetic, you’re counting up anything and nothing at the same time.
The breeze lifted my hair as I walked past Uncle’s store and gazed at it from the other side of the road. I saw the sign hung on the door in English and Italian. Chiuso/Closed. I looked at the place where Antonia sat yesterday, expecting an empty chair. But it was not empty. There was someone there.
A girl was sitting with her hands folded neatly in her lap. Her white dress looked like Antonia’s, only the lace went all the way up to her chin. She had dark hair too, yanked back in a braid. I couldn’t see her face very well. Was it someone I knew?
I ran into the street to get a better look at her, and heard the screech and honk of an automobile. I leapt out of the road as the driver shouted curses at me.
“Mi scusi, signore!” I called, but he was already off, smoke tunneling out of his exhaust pipe.
When I turned back to the window, there was nobody there. I pressed my fingers on the cold glass, peering inside for some sight of the girl, but she was gone. The taps of the soda fountain shone like jewelry.
“I saw a girl today in the window of Uncle’s store,” I said at dinnertime.
Mamma looked up from her frittata. “Who?”
“I didn’t recognize her,” I said.
My sister looked curious but not threatened. Another girl in the same window could be competition for the same eligible young men, but Antonia didn’t seem to care.
“That can’t be true,” said Papa, buttering a roll. “Your Zio told me that only Antonia would sit in his window this week. Giusto, Antonia?”
Antonia looked down at the vegetables jiggling inside the frittata. She shrugged.
“I will ask him,” Papa said, and the matter was settled.
“It’s too hot for frittata,” said Mamma, pushing her plate away. “I should have made salad.”
Uncle Salvatore said he knew nothing of this girl. He said that unless some little girl broke into his shop to go sit in the window, he had no idea what we were talking about. I must have made a mistake.
“Un fantasma, eh?” He asked, nudging me.
At first I couldn’t remember what the word meant, but then it occurred to me and I tried to laugh. Fantasma. Ghost.
We bought a bag of tomatoes that Antonia would stuff with rice tonight when her new fiancé Giuseppe Sunday and his family came for dinner. As Mamma passed the bag of tomatoes to me to carry, I knew I’d spend all afternoon scooping out tomato guts in our hot kitchen.
When we left the store, I glanced back at the window and saw the girl again. There she was, sitting calmly in the chair, her hands laid across her knees. She didn’t look like any ghosts I’d heard of. She wasn’t transparent, but solid. And there was a faint hum of light around her.
“Mamma, there she is!” I shouted, dropping the sack of tomatoes and rushing towards the window. But, by the time I reached it, she was gone again.
Mamma stared at me with her hands on her hips, and then she jerked her head towards the tomatoes. I picked them up one by one, putting them back in the brown sack, feeling dizzy from the heat and what I had just seen.
“Enough nonsense, Rosalia. After you help your sister with dinner, you should have a nap in your room,” said Mamma, as she pressed a palm onto my forehead. “You don’t have a temperature, but I don’t want you to fall ill too.”
I nodded, placing the last of the tomatoes in the bag. It wasn’t nonsense. I had seen someone there and, this time, I had recognized her.
I still did not know what she was—a fantasma? A ghost? Or maybe an angel, like those that visit saints? But though I didn’t know what she was, I was certain now who she was.
The girl in the window was me.
At dinner with Giuseppe Sunday’s family, I didn’t eat anything. I pushed Brussels sprouts across my plate and watched them knock into each other like marbles. I mashed up the tomato under my fork until it was practically pasta sauce. My parents fawned over his parents, who frowned at our little apartment near the waterfront. My father asked Giuseppe Sunday questions about how he would take over his father’s bakery one day.
Giuseppe Sunday seemed to enjoy baking and talked for a quarter of an hour about why he preferred to fry cannoli in peanut oil, rather than shortening. “It’s a better flavor in the end,” he said. His voice was quiet, barely audible over the honk of horns outside and the occasional screech of the seagulls. “And I think it makes better bubbles in the dough.” But he admitted that he did not much like accounting. He hoped to one day hire someone “to help with the books.”
“Rosalia is good at arithmetic,” said Antonia.
The sound of my own name frightened me. But I felt flattered that Antonia had said this. I imagined sitting at the bakery counter with a pencil in my hand. Perhaps this bakery was my future: adding up how much we’d spent that week on sugar, how many cannoli we’d sold. All that arithmetic I’d been doing at school—twenty-five divided by five, thirty-two divided by eight. Had it been practice for this? All those nothings transformed into somethings in my head. Twenty-five biscotti. Thirty-two slices of blackberry crostata. I imagined spearing receipts in a row on a little spike at the end of each day. I thought of the door jingling as I called out to customers, “Come again!”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I could help.”
Giuseppe gave me a small, encouraging smile, but then Papa burst out laughing, Mamma following suit.
“Antonia, Giuseppe is speaking of running his business, not school arithmetic,” Papa said and patted Giuseppe Sunday on the shoulders with such force that the small boy winced.
My cheeks burned and I did not say another word for the rest of the meal.
After dinner we went to the living room. Mamma poured tea from her beautiful black pot with red roses, the one she brought over from Sicily. Giuseppe Sunday’s mother brought biscotti but they were hard as flint. Aren’t they supposed to be good bakers, I thought, sucking at a piece until it went gummy in my mouth.
When they started drinking Marsala, I stood up. I said I had to use the bathroom, but nobody noticed when I kept going down the hall, towards the front door, down the stairs, into the orange and pink of early evening. There was a light, cooling breeze from the harbor. Mother had tied a yellow ribbon into a bow at my collar and the wind made the loose ends rise up and flutter in my face. I swatted it away.
Uncle’s shop was just around the corner. I had to make sure of what I had seen. The girl’s face was narrower than mine and she had more of a swell at her chest. But it was me. I knew it.
Uncle once told me that we never meet ourselves in dreams. If we do, it’s a sign that we will die. In dreams, we can meet kings, presidents, and circus performers, long dead relatives, and famous baseball players. But we can never meet ourselves.
I rounded the corner and looked at the chair in the window. Empty. I was both relieved and disappointed to find nobody there. I stood in front of the shop for a few minutes staring at the window, but it was only when I turned to walk away that I heard muted screaming and spun back around. There she was: the girl. And she was pounding on the glass. Her dark hair was wild around her shoulders and there were ribbons on the floor, along with scattered lemons. She kept looking behind her, terrified, like some monster was about to charge out of the storeroom and eat her.
I rushed towards the front door and tried to tug it open. It was locked.
I searched the ground for anything useful. I saw a single tin can, an apple core, and at the base of the fire hydrant—a smooth, flat stone. I grabbed it, winding back my hand, like I’d seen boys in alleyways do with their baseballs. Then I let it fly.
The glass shattered, all of the shards tumbling down like rain. Through the hole in the window, the girl stepped out, glass crunching underfoot.
She didn’t look at me but ran right past, up the street, gathering her skirt in one hand so her ankles were showing. Then she turned a corner and disappeared. I listened for her footsteps, but couldn’t hear them anymore. I could only hear sirens gathering, somewhere far away.
From the writer
:: Account ::
This story began with another story. One Christmas, my Uncle mentioned, in passing, that my Italian-American great-grandmother got engaged after her future mother-in-law saw her in a shop window and liked the look of her. “That was the custom,” my Uncle told me. “To put eligible daughters in windows.” My mind conjured up an image of my great-grandmother on display in a storefront window, next to tin cans and fruits and cakes. This idea, of sticking would-be brides in windows, was startling and unsettling—how it took objectification to (almost) comical heights and made the marriage “market” literal.
Several months later, when I went to write a story inspired by this anecdote, I discovered that it probably wasn’t true. Nobody else in my family had heard of it. Indeed, nobody could even remember my Uncle saying it that Christmas. I couldn’t find a record of this “custom” in any books on Italian-American communities, and my partner, who is from northern Italy, knew nothing about it either. My Uncle, sadly, has passed away, so I cannot ask him where he first heard the story. Perhaps he made it up. Perhaps I made it up. Or misheard him, or misunderstood. But it is just strange enough that it could have happened.
What is true is that my great-grandmother, Lena, lived in Baltimore in the early 1900s. She had a bad, arranged marriage. Apparently I met her, once, when I was very young, but I can’t remember it. Just as my character Rosalia is haunted by the mysterious girl in the window, I am haunted by Lena and by the image of her behind glass, looking out at passersby. This image feels very possible, indeed very real, to me, whether or not it actually happened.
Carly Brown is a writer and academic based in Edinburgh. Her second poetry pamphlet, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror (Stewed Rhubarb Press), was released in 2020. She holds a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and is currently working on a historical novel. Her website is carlyjbrown.com.