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Without Provisions

Third-Place Winner – 2020 Fiction Contest
Vintage photo of meat counter

Eva would tell her father about the proposal herself. For her mother had kielbasy to make for the Pope and could think of nothing else, the request coming as it did from the Cardinal, and his courier coming to pick up the sausage by evening. And then, thought Eva as she sniffed the air, it’s here, false spring, that inevitable day in February when a scented breeze teased the lakeshore, scarves were unwound, overcoats unbuttoned. And waves of thaw spread west across the city.

It seemed to her as she crossed Damen Avenue, swinging her canvas book bag, that no other place on earth could enjoy such brilliance, that the melt of harsh winter made the warmth penetrating, made jewels of every stick and stone: diamonds hung from the bare elms along the parkway, holly leaves sprung like shiny emeralds beneath the retreating snow. Weekday wash was pinned to backyard lines; bright flags of relief, they decorated their boxy bungalows. The windows of the Kirschener’s three-flat were thrown open, so wide, passersby could hear the hissing rhythm of water through the pipes of their radiators.

Eva paused before the door to the butcher shop under the sign Teddy’s Provisions, feeling as she did that she was on the brink of losing something. She imagined the tinkling silver of the bell she would hear at its opening.

Hugo Houck, her father’s apprentice, hurried from the shop at that moment, exciting the bell. There it was, that clear and flutey sound. Hugo’s chapped hands were full of paint cans, but he managed to hold the door for her, using his work boot as a stop. Three horsehair brushes were tucked in his apron, their speckled handles lined up beneath the narrow linen ties, neatly like soldiers.

“Even the trash cans will get a coating for the Holy Father,” Hugo mumbled hastily. He was surprised to see her midweek, home during her first year at the Jesuit university ninety miles north of Chicago. She looked different since her last visit; it must be the long braid that had given way to a sleek bob that let her mahogany hair shine red in the sun. But she was still the slight girl who barely reached his breastbone.

Just weeks ago Eva had delivered boxes of Christmas kolaches, fat cookie pillows crowned with dollops of fruit, half with prune paste, half with apricot jam, dusted neatly with powdery sugar. Presents for him and the clerks. The paper pleated cups looked like little red and green skirts placed upside-down to hold their prizes. He allowed himself one as a reward on each of the twelve days of Christmas, until, on the feast of the Three Kings, the lonely last one tasted only of the tin.

He looked relieved when Eva smiled and the familiar grin peeked slowly through her grown-up face. The grin that dimpled her cheeks and turned up her mouth in a lopsided way that made her seem shy. Then her blue eyes danced. And he realized how good it was to see those dimples and dancing eyes, how nice it was to see her.

She was greeting him, but he hardly heard her for he felt uneasy, recognizing as he did his own pleasure at her visit. Hugo stared down at her shoes. And it was then he noticed her tasseled loafers, always buffed to a fine cordovan shine, were rimmed this day with gray waves from the salty slush. Somehow this made him more flustered, and losing his grip on the cans, they clanged clumsily against each other.

Eva was used to bashful Hugo. To spare him the effort of conversation, she quickly stepped into the gleam of stainless steel and glass that was her father’s shop. The thick sloping panes of the display cases reflected fluorescent light; for a moment the brightness obscured her focus, then she saw, off to the side of the shop, the distinctive carmine color of organ meats—kidneys, livers and hearts cradled in trays. Was there anything in the world so deeply red? 

She remembered once being frightened by this sight, by its stinging smell, and huddling behind her father, clutching the hem of his starched jacket. Her father’s bottomless laugh, his bellow: “You don’t know what you’re missing, rabbit. But that’s all right, mm’m mm’m, there’ll be more for me and my neighbors.”

This day there was a wall of women, heads covered with babushkas, purses slung from the crooks of their arms and held tightly against their hips, clucking at the front counter. These matrons were like an order of nuns in their own strict habits that kept any but the most observant from distinguishing them, one from another. They seemed all to be of the same middle age, with broad foreheads framed by the small bands of colorless hair left uncovered by the riotous silk or chiffon scarves. For the first time, Eva was conscious of how different they looked compared to the women outside this small neighborhood. She felt a vague discomfort standing among these Polish women, the ones she had seen hurrying to the shops or to the church every day of her childhood. The ones who bought liver for their dumplings in this shop every week. The ones who wore house dresses just like her mother’s.

Then one of them stepped back from the pork section, and Eva could see thick pearly chops laid out like brickwork, each one framed with an inch of ivory fat. But she still couldn’t see her father.

She felt a familiar queasiness about the back room full of blades and mallets. Where large cleavers were mounted on the wall after Hugo’s meticulous cleaning and Teddy’s painstaking sharpening, where the saw whined and growled.

“A band saw has no friends, Evie,” her father often teased her, holding up his left forefinger with only one knuckle. As a little girl, she would look away before he waved his maimed hand. Then it became a gruesome game they practiced together. Eva would giggle, then hide her thumb in her palm and wiggle her four fingers at him with a devilish squeal. 

Though she came to joke with Teddy and the others in the shop about his long-ago misfortune, she never lost the dread of her father being injured again.

“Pop!” she couldn’t help herself. “Poppa!” she called again, her voice alarmingly shrill. The women who had been arranged in rows dispersed like chickadees at a clap of thunder.

His ruddy face appeared suddenly, popping up and among the customers who faced him, and Eva laughed at his expression, so full of delight. But she wished she could reach to her father’s height and straighten the white paper cap, for its pinched front and back peaks were perched ridiculously askew on his giant head. Probably no one else noticed, and if they did, well, it was just the butcher’s way.

“Teddy, look who’s here!” Mrs. Gerbing retrieved a white waxy package with one hand and change with the other from the smooth tray proffered toward her.

“College girl, to what do we owe the honor?” the butcher winked at Mrs. Kist and nodded in his daughter’s direction. “We’re lucky she still speaks to us, she knows so much.”

Eva averted her glance as the women chuckled and clucked, this time about her. In that moment she thought how right she had been to make this trip alone. It was enough to face her father, to announce that she would marry Will. How much harder it would have been if Will himself had been with her as he wanted to be. And then she felt a wave of shame at wanting to shield the man she loved from the life she’d lived.

“Dad, stop,” she said to the floor.

“Well then, what are you waiting for. Step back here, there’s an apron on the hook.” He looked at Eva with so much affection, so much approval, she felt as though he hugged her. “I can use an extra pair of hands,” he said, proudly. “Your mother, hell, the whole city, is in a tizzy over the Polish Pope.”

There was nothing to do but pitch in. It wouldn’t occur to her to insist her father interrupt his service to the customers of Teddy’s Provisions, even if she’d wanted to. Her news would have to wait.

•   •   •   •   •

It felt good to work in the shop again, Eva thought. Just like the old days before her father decided the hours were wasted, the experience was holding her back.

“A girl doesn’t learn anything working with her hands,” he had declared on his daughter’s twelfth birthday.

Teddy’s wife, Mrs. Postregna, had watched him toss a stained towel on the slate floor. Her eyes clouded. She thought of all the houses she had scrubbed clean, all the strangers’ children she had tended those many nights while, for twenty years, the couple toiled by day in a trade she thought was noble.

“I won’t have my girl carting carcasses like a common tradesman for one more day. No daughter of mine will break her back like you’ve had to.” His voice was gruff and full of disdain. “Eva deserves more.”

Mrs. Postregna pulled her daughter’s coat from the rack that day, knowing better than to argue. She saw Evie look up at her with an expression so confused and worried, she hurried to fasten the frogs on the girl’s navy coat and to smooth the velvet collar, hoping to reassure their little girl. But she wondered and wanted to ask what was shameful in providing food for friends and neighbors, in helping them take care of their families?

That day was the end of Eva’s connection to her parents’ life at work. Mr. and Mrs. Postregna rarely spoke of the shop over their black coffee at breakfast or over their dumplings at dinner. And Eva had piano lessons on Mondays, skating on Tuesdays, and practice in between to fill the time she would have been at the shop after school; voice lessons on Saturday mornings; gymnastics at Sokol Hall during every other free moment. 

Sometimes, swinging between the parallel bars, she wondered if rabbits were being delivered, nestled like sleeping babies on the pallets Hugo pushed into the back room, or if he was carrying bleating lambs over his shoulder to the cellar, their eyes glassy with fear. For though she liked winning ribbons for her gym skills, she had often missed what was going on in the shop without her.

Now, after so much time, she was back working with her father. Eva pulled the apron over her head, feeling the exhilaration of old habits. She only wished that the Cardinal hadn’t called, that her mother was scurrying around with trays of her sausages here instead of in her home kitchen. But the honor of the request, for the Pope to lunch on her mother’s lauded recipes made from her father’s butchering, why it was a thrill for her parents. Besides, if her mother were not preoccupied, she wouldn’t have this chance to work at the shop in her place.

Teddy handed Eva two heavy veal shanks, each bigger than his arm, for wrapping. She leaned against the metal sink to brace herself as she reached toward the familiar places for the roll of paper, the spool of cotton string fixed on its dowel, the flat wax pencil tied above her head, hanging by two lengths of twine. As with so many times in her past, Hugo appeared just in time to cut the string, blushing and turning away as she tried to thank him. Nothing seemed to have changed.

There was a lull in orders; Teddy stole a glance at Eva helping a customer. This girl, his daughter, a woman. In love with that young man, Will Dixon. That Will, he looked so like his name: lanky, strapping, American. The butcher shook his head and was glad when the counter bell demanded his attention again.

The stream of business continued until the Angelus bells rang out from St. Simeon’s, signaling the end of the workday. Mr. Postregna appeared from behind the swinging door in his insulated lumberjack shirt, hatless and carrying his domed lunch pail. Eva was surprised to see new patches of silver at the edges of her father’s thick wavy hair, to notice that his jet-black hair had changed in such a short time. Why this was just the beginning, it struck her, of other changes in her parents, in herself, that they would not share together.

“Now we talk,” Teddy said, unable to resist the urge to cover his daughter’s head with his rough hand, to smooth her neatly parted hair. Their child, this godsend. He did not know how to let her go, to send her on her way. It had been enough to see her off to college. This was different, so much bigger.

“What’s on your noggin?” He steered her head toward the door and onto the avenue.

Feeling his touch that way, it sent her back to her childhood. As her father fixed the shop bolt, Eva pulled away, annoyed. She wanted to tell him the news, face-to-face, like equals. She reminded herself she wasn’t here for some old-fashioned blessing. She was here to start her own life, prepared to fight her father for it, expecting his demands, his conditions, levied for any change she ever wanted to make in her life. Her mother called these Teddy’s Provisions, just like the shop. If you want this, you must do that.

“Poppa,” she started, her voice breaking a little. “Dad,” she corrected herself, “Will Dixon is leaving for California.”

“The mad scientist is now a wandering minstrel?” Teddy’s dark eyes began to dance. “And I should care, why?”

“He’ll be going to graduate school.”

Teddy Postregna smacked his lips, “I could sure use a tall lager about now, Evie. I have a thirst you could photograph.”

“Dad, listen.” Eva tugged on the handle of her father’s pail. “Will’s leaving in two weeks.”

“Jesus, I hear you, so does the whole neighborhood.” Teddy patted his daughter’s mitten. “So, he’ll be a big man, this Will Dixon?”

“Oh, Dad, that’s not what I’m talking about.” She wanted to stamp her foot. She felt frustrated; the combination of her father’s teasing and the fact that she could soon be a married woman scared her. So much was uncertain. She wanted to finish school, knew her father expected it. He would disapprove, of that much she could be certain. She would have to fight him for the very thing that frightened her.

“Two thousand miles away. That’s a long way, for sure,” he said, tucking his upper lip and shaking his head from side to side. “A long, long way. Why, it took me a week to get to Frisco before I was shipped out to the Pacific!”

Eva thought of Will in a life apart from her, then thought of joining him so far from every other thing she loved. Both ideas choked her.

“I don’t know what to do, Poppa.” Her own words stunned her, sounding like a plea instead of the intended proclamation of her destiny. She looked at the ground and let out a deep sigh. 

“Well, what should we make for your mother’s dinner?” Teddy looked across Damen Avenue as though he didn’t hear his daughter. “She’ll have had no time to cook, what with the cardinal and his sausage frenzy. That Pope’s good fortune is my misfortune. The lucky old Polack, to be on the receiving end of her recipe.” 

He slapped his thigh, enjoying his own irreverence.

“Stuffed cabbage, what you think? We’ll make it in the basement kitchen, escape the biddies upstairs slaving with your mother.”

“You’re not getting this, Dad,” Eva blurted. “Will wants to marry me.”

“So I’ve been told.” Teddy looked east, inhaling the soft breezes. 

“You know already?”

“Even if this Will isn’t one of ours, I can tell he’s been raised a good boy. He called last night.” Teddy raised his chin, strained for his old authority before measuring his words. “Called to ask for a father’s permission.”

Teddy turned to his daughter. She stood in the twilight, studying him with the crystal blue eyes of her mother.

“You’ve known all day? And you said nothing?” Eva’s expression was fierce, defiant.

Teddy thought to reprimand her for disrespect. Then he saw her striped muffler, the one his wife had knitted, dragging in the snow, and she seemed so like their little Evie, he wanted to tuck her under his arm like the old days and race for their flat. 

Instead, he laid his bare hand across his barrel chest.

“Enough of this cat-and-mouse, Eva. I have just one question.” He looked at his daughter solemnly.

“Is this what you want?” he asked gently. ”Marriage to this Will Dixon?”

Eva stared at her father, amazed at the question between them. Always before it had been what he wanted, what he proclaimed was best. She held her breath, thinking how to answer him about what it was she wanted.

Well, she wanted Will, that much she knew. Married, in California, those were different matters.

“Yes, Poppa,” she finally whispered. She scarcely breathed, feeling the fear of flinging herself into unknown space, but feeling, too, a kind of exhilaration she had never experienced.

“So, you go to your young man. You have plans to make. Two weeks is almost no time. Your mama and I, we’ll take care of the Pope.”

“This means I’ll be living two thousand miles away, you know,” Eva said in a voice that sounded to her suddenly desperate. “And leaving school. I won’t be in any classes for at least a term.”

Suddenly she realized that she wanted her father to turn the clock back to the family’s simple routines with one of his infuriating orders. To set the table, to darn the socks, to conjugate the Latin verbs he never had a chance to learn as a boy. Where was his annoying admonishment to appreciate her education and its opportunities, all lost to him as the oldest brother who sent his siblings through school? 

She wanted to give her heart to Will but not at the cost of her parents’ dreams for her. The dreams they’d scrimped for, the dreams, she realized, that had become her own. She knew then that she’d expected her father would discuss all this, find a way to make it all work, as he always did.

But her father said nothing, placed no argument, no obstacle in her way. Eva covered her face with her mittened hands. She wondered why she wasn’t relieved.

Seeing her so, Teddy felt he should somehow lighten her anguish, make her smile. He took her chin in his hand.

“You think there’s a right time to get married? A perfect time that guarantees? This marriage to Will Dixon is what you say you want, Evie. Don’t make of it a tragedy.”

“But, Poppa …” Eva struggled to speak.

Teddy held his hand up to stop her.

“Who is it you’re arguing with, young woman? It can’t be me,” he smiled as he teased her. “Maybe it’s young Mr. Dixon you need to debate.”

Teddy bent and kissed the part on his daughter’s head, then felt her lean to embrace him. What a comfort it was to hold her, to cradle her head again! Every morning, noon and night of Eva’s life in their home, his arms, his wife’s, had encircled this girl. Why, it must have been ten times ten thousand hugs! 

These four months of her college life had been long ones for him and Eva’s mother. Now he had to make a gift of the miles, thousands more of them, that stretched out like an ocean to separate them further from their daughter. He had to let her find her own way with this Will Dixon, just as he had done with his own wife, her mother. At least, he comforted himself, Evie and this Will didn’t need to cross the ocean, to leave their own country. He tried not to think of the distance.

“Life’s surprised you, that’s all,” Teddy whispered into his daughter’s ear. “Not such a bad thing this time, I think.” He breathed in the familiar smell of her, the girlish jumble of soap and lotion spiced with sweat from the day’s efforts, and he thought, not for the first time, how fearsome it was to love a child.

“You just let your mother know the day, we’ll arrange for the Mass. At least we can thank God this guy is Catholic. And we’ll have a supper where the aunts and uncles, our neighbors can all wish you and this Will Dixon well.”

Teddy stepped back and pinched and patted his daughter’s cheek in the way he had of sealing conspiracies between them. The habit made him a bit easier with this hard moment.

His gesture, so familiar and so dear, brought a lump to Eva’s throat and she could think of nothing to say.

“We’ll get the parish hall, you’ll see. No one wants to piss the butcher off.” Teddy was struggling for more words to fill the void between them, spending more than his usual day’s worth. “Be sorry for me. There’ll be no break in the baking between the Pope’s visit and your wedding—while I’ll be eating soup from the back of the stove for weeks again.”

He reached down for his daughter’s wrists, raised her fingers to his lips and kissed them before returning them firmly to her sides. “I can see them now, the butter cakes, the raspberry tarts crowding me out of my house.” He sighed in resignation.

Then Teddy started down the street.

Eva wanted to chase after him, to follow him up the stone stoop to their steamy kitchen where Mrs. Bartunek was salting the cabbage, her mother wrapping the kielbasy. Where neighbor ladies bustled, rolling pierogies with fervor. All for the glory of God and a blessing from the Pope who was one of their own.

But she stood shivering on Damen Avenue, knowing her father had said all he would. And she watched his silhouette shrinking in the half light, tears streaming down her cheeks.

When it seemed her father could get no smaller, just as Eva was thinking that this choice for Will asked too much of her, of her father and mother, the butcher turned. He stretched his arms, hoisting his lunch pail aloft, making of himself a scarecrow and cheered: “Smell the spring, Evie!”

Seeing his clowning shadow, hearing his boisterous order, Eva began to laugh, an improbable grin spreading across her face.

“California won’t have a spring like this,” she called back to him.

The way he hurried away on Damen Avenue, it didn’t seem her father had heard her. Suddenly, it was important that he know she had called after him. Leaning forward, she began to run to him.

Propelled, she didn’t mind that her book bag was banging against her hip, didn’t care that her scarf was unraveling, didn’t notice that people along the street stared at her. 

But after a few yards, she began to imagine her father’s look when she would reach him. The bemused look that would say, We talked this all out, didn’t we?

Eva slowed her pace. Behind that look would be his worry that she wasn’t certain, after all, of the life she was choosing. Behind that look would be the helplessness of knowing that even if she asked him, he wouldn’t know a certain course for her, one free of regret.

She stopped then and squinted to make out her father’s figure. She could barely see him; it didn’t matter now. Eva reached into her pocket for a handkerchief, and with her free hand she blew a kiss into the night.

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Barbara Kriegsmann is the third-place winner of the 2020 Wisconsin People & Ideas Fiction Contest. A former pharmaceutical executive. Among the functions she directed in her career were strategic planning, product management, marketing research and advertising.

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