Between Friends by Adriana Spadoni
A Story of the Italian Quarter
Vincenza looked from the three crisp dollar bills to
her husband, and back again, wonderingly and with
fear in her eyes.
"I understand nothing, Gino, and I am afraid. Perhaps
it will bring the sickness, the money—it is of the devil,
Luigi laughed, but a little uneasily. "It is time, then,
that the devil went to paradise; he makes better for us than
the saints, to whom you pray so——"
"S-sh!" Vincenza crossed herself quickly. "That is a great
Luigi picked up the bills, examining them closely. Apparently
they were good. Nevertheless he put them down
again, and went on carving a wooden cow for the little
Carolina, with a puzzled look in his black eyes.
"Gino," Vincenza stopped undressing the baby suddenly
when the thought came to her. "Go thou and ask Biaggio.
He has been many years in this country, and, besides, he is also
a Genovese. He will tell thee."
Luigi's eyes cleared, but he condescended to make no
reply. It is not for a man to take the advice of a woman.
But when it was dark, and Vincenza had gone to lie down
with the Little One, Luigi took his hat and went over to the
shop of Biaggio Franchini.
Biaggio listened attentively; his pudgy hands, crossed on
his stomach, rose and fell with the undulations of the rolls of
flesh beneath. From time to time he ceased for a moment
the contemplation of the strings of garlic and sausage that
hung from the fly-specked ceiling of his diminutive shop,
and turned his little black eyes sharply on Luigi.
"So," he said at last, "to-day a lady came to thy house,
and after to ask many questions left these three dollars.
It was in this way?"
"Just so," replied Luigi, "and questions the most marvelous
I have ever heard. And in this country, where everyone
asks the questions. How long that I do not work, and
if we have to eat?" Luigi laughed; "of a surety, Biaggio,
she asked that. She sees that we live—and she asks if we
eat—ma! chè! And then, if we have every day the meat?
When I said once, sometimes twice in the week—thou
knowest it is not possible to have more often, when one waits
to buy the house—then it was she put on the table the three
dollars, and gave me a paper to sign——"
"Thou didst sign nothing?" Biaggio spoke eagerly.
"No. Once I signed the paper in English and it cost
me two dollars; not again. I said I could not write, and
she wrote for me."
"Bene," Biaggio nodded approval. "It is not thy writing.
It can do nothing."
"Perhaps it is because I voted twice at the election last
week? But already I have taken the money for that. It
was one only dollar. I——"
"Non, non, it is not that. Listen!" Slowly Biaggio
shut both eyes, as if to keep out the tremendous light that
had dawned upon him, and nodded his head knowingly.
Then he opened them, shifted his huge bulk upright, and
clapped Luigi on the knee.
"Thou art in great luck friend," he cried, "and it is well that
thou hast asked me. If thou hadst gone to another, to a man
not honest, who knows? Listen. In our country when a rich
man dies, he leaves always something for the poor, but he
leaves it to the church and it is the fathers who give away
the money. Corpo di Bacco! what that means thou knowest
well. Sometimes a little gets to the poor. Sometimes—— But
in this country it is not so. He leaves to a society. There
are many. And they pay the women, and sometimes the
men, to give away the money——"
"Santo Cristo," gasped Luigi, "they pay to give away the
"For them it is a job like any other. Didst think it was
for love of thee or the red curls of thy Vincenza?"
"Marvelous, most marvelous," murmured Luigi, "and it
is possible then for all people to get——"
"Ma, that no one can explain," and Biaggio shrugged his
shoulders; in a gesture of absolute inability to solve the
"She will come then again, this lady?" Luigi leaned forward
eagerly. He was beginning to grasp it.
"It is for thee to say stop, my son, if thou hast in thy head
anything but fat. But thou art a Genovese. Only I say,"
Biaggio laid a grimy thumb across his lips and winked knowingly—"Tell
"Thanks, many thanks friend," Luigi's voice was deeply
grateful, "perhaps some day I can do for thee——?"
"It is nothing—nothing," insisted Biaggio, patting the
air with his pudgy hands in a gesture of denial, "a little kindness
At great inconvenience to himself, Biaggio held the door
open to give Luigi more light in crossing the street. As he
closed it and turned out the gas, he smiled to himself. "And
each bottle of oil will cost thee ten cents more, friend. Business
is business, and yesterday thy Vincenza returned the
carrots because they were not fresh. Ecco!"
Back in his own room, Luigi folded the three notes neatly,
while Vincenza watched him, her gray eyes wide with wonder.
"Marvelous, marvelous," she whispered just as Luigi had
done, "to-night I thank the Virgin."
As Biaggio had foretold, the Lady in Fur came every day.
Luigi did not understand all that she said, but he always
listened politely and smiled, with his dark eyes and his lips
and his glistening white teeth. It made her feel very old to see
Luigi smile like that, when he had to live in one room with a
leaking water pipe and a garbage can outside the door.
Sometimes she was almost ashamed to offer the three
dollars, and she was grateful for the gentle, sweet way Luigi
Then one day when the air was thick with snow, and the
air in the tenement halls cut like needles of ice and the lamps
had to be lit at two o'clock, the Lady in Brown Fur came
unexpectedly. She had found work for Luigi. She kissed
the Little One, patted Vincenza's shoulder and shook hands
with Luigi. Again and again she made him repeat the name
and address to make sure he had it quite right. The Lady
in Brown Fur was very happy. When she went Vincenza
leaned far over the banisters with the lamp while Luigi called
out in his soft, broken English, directions for avoiding the
lines of washing below and the refuse piled in dark turns of
the stairs. When the Lady in Brown Fur had disappeared
Vincenza turned to Luigi.
"Of a surety, cara, the saints are good. Never before didst
thou work before April. In the new house we will keep for
ourselves two rooms.
"These people have the 'pull' even more than the alderman,
Biaggio says," replied Luigi with a dreamy look in his eyes.
"It may be that from this work I shall take three dollars
"Madonna mia," gasped Vincenza, "it is beyond belief."
For five days Luigi stood four hours each afternoon, bent
forward, to the lifting of a cardboard block, while Hugh
Keswick painted, as he had not painted for months, the tense
muscles under the olive skin, the strong neck and shoulders.
The Building of the Temple advanced rapidly. And Luigi's
arms and back ached so that each night Vincenza had to rub
them with the oil which now cost ten cents more in the shop of
On the Sixth day Luigi refused to go.
"I tell thee it is a stupidness—to stand all day with the pain
in the back. For what? Fifty cents. It is a work for old
men and children——"
"But thou canst not make the money, sitting in thy chair,
with thy feet on the stove, like now——"
"Dost thou wish then that I have every night the knives in
my back? If so——"
"Not so, caro, but——"
"Listen. You understand nothing and talk as a woman.
A lady comes to my house. She says—you have no work,
here is money. Then she comes and says—here is work.
But at this work I make not so much as before she gave; and
in addition, I have the pain in the back. Ecco, when she comes
again, I no longer have the work. It is her job to give away
the money. She is not a fool, that Lady in Brown Fur. It is
that I make her a kindness. Not so?"
"As thou sayest," and Vincenza went on with her endless
But when the week passed and the Lady in Brown Fur did
not come, Luigi's forehead wrinkled with the effort to understand.
When the second had gone, Luigi was openly troubled.
When the third was half over, he again took his hat and went
over to the shop of Biaggio.
As before Biaggio listened attentively, his eyes closed, until
Luigi had finished. Then he opened them, made a clicking
noise with his tongue, and laid one finger along the side
of his nose.
"Holy Body of Christ," he said softly, "in business thou
hast the head like a rock. In one curl of thy Vincenza there
is more sense than in all thy great body. Did I not tell thee
to be careful, and it would stop only when thou didst wish.
And now, without to ask my advice, you make the stupidness,
"Ma, Dio mio," Luigi's hands made angry protest against
the invective of Biaggio, "I said only like a man of sense. It
is her job, it make no difference——"
"Blood of the Lamb! Thou hast been in America eight
months, and thou dost not know that they are mad, all quite
mad, to work? Never do they stop. Even after to have fifty
years, think, fifty years, still they work. They work even with
the children old enough to keep them. For many months The
Skinny One, she who gives milk to the baby of Giacomo, had
the habit to find him such work, like the foolishness of your
painter. And Giacomo has already three children more than
fifteen. Ma——" Biaggio snorted his contempt. Then suddenly
his manner changed. He leaned back in his chair, and
apparently dismissed the subject with a wave of his fat hand.
"And the little Carolina she is well in this weather of the
devil?" But Luigi did not answer. He was thinking with
a pucker between his black eyes. Biaggio watched him narrowly.
At last he spoke, looking fixedly at the sausages
above his head.
"Of course—it—is—possible—you have made a—mistake—but——"
Luigi leaned forward eagerly. "It is possible then to——"
"All things are possible," Biaggio nodded his head at the
sausages, blinking like a large, fat owl. Then he stopped.
"Perhaps, you will tell—to me," Luigi was forced to
it at last.
Biaggio gave a little grunt as if he were being brought back
from a deep meditation. "There is a way," he said slowly.
"If thou write to her of the Brown Fur that thou art sick and
cannot do the work——"
"But never in my life was I better. Only last week Giacomo
said I have grown fat. How the——"
"It is possible," replied Biaggio wearily, "to be sick of a
sickness that makes one neither thin nor white. With a sickness—of
the legs like the rheumatism, for example, one eats,
one sleeps, only one cannot walk or stand for many hours."
In spite of his efforts to the contrary, the wonder and admiration
grew deeper in Luigi's eyes. "Thou thinkest the——?"
"I am sure," now that Luigi was reduced to the proper state
of humility Biaggio gave up his attitude of distant oracle,
and leaned close. "Thou hast made a mistake, but it is not
too late. If thou dost wish I will write it for thee."
"If thou sayest," replied Luigi and now it was his turn
to gaze at the strings of garlic, "if you will do this favor."
"With pleasure," Biaggio's fat hands made little gestures of
willingness to oblige. "Of a truth it is not much, but when one
wishes to buy the house, and already the family is begun, two
dollars and a half each week——"
Luigi glanced at him sharply. "Two and——"
Biaggio drew the ink to him and dipped his pen. "Two
and a half for thee, and for me——"
"Bene, bene," Luigi interrupted quickly, "it is only just."
"Between friends," explained Biaggio as he began to write.
"Between friends," echoed Luigi, and added to himself,
"closer than the skin of a snake art thou—friend."
The Lady in the Brown Fur came next day. She had been
very angry and disappointed in Luigi, too angry and disappointed
to go near him. Now she felt very sorry and uncomfortable
when she saw his right leg stretched out before, so
stiff that he could not bend it. He smiled and made the
motion of getting up, but could not do it, and sank back again
with a gesture of helplessness more eloquent than words.
When the Lady in Brown Fur had gone, Vincenza found
an extra bill, brand new, tucked into the pocket of the
Luigi waited until he was quite sure that Biaggio would be
alone. There was a look of real sorrow in his dark eyes as
he slipped a shiny quarter across the counter. "She left only
two," he explained, "the reason I do not know. Perhaps
"It is nothing, nothing between friends." Biaggio slipped
the quarter into the cigar box under the counter and smiled
a fat smile at Luigi. But he did not hold the door open when
Luigi went, and his little eyes were hard like gimlet points.
"So," he whispered softly. "So. One learns quickly, very
quickly in this new country. Only two dollars this time. Bene,
Gino mio, the price of sausage, as that of oil, goes up—between