Polly checked her watch but saw she had time before cena. No doubt Mme Meringue would like for her to be at home more, but Polly wasn’t about to miss out on opportunities for meeting with her new friends or seeing more of Pisa.
Flora kept up a steady flow of commentary as they walked. “I love our apartment. Mamma speaks beautifully and likes to play around by putting on airs like a rich lady. When she gets all dressed up and goes into her act, she can make Mme Meringue and all her phony airs look downright cheap—but they do anyway, in my opinion.
“Anyway, mamma did what she calls her ‘exception to the rule’ and wore regular, non-Gypsy clothes when she went to see about renting the apartment. The landlord probably wondered why such an upper-crust woman would be interested in such a modest place, but mamma can charm anyone when she wants to. The landlord wasn’t a bit happy when he found out the sweet lady and her little family are Gypsies.
“He came banging on our door during cena one evening and demanded to be let in—or he’d use his passkey and come in anyway. Someone had told him what we are. But then when he saw us all at dinner in the dining room, just like some perfect television family, he didn’t know what to say for a moment. So he just said, ‘Gypsies!’
“‘Yes?’ said mamma and papà together.
“‘You didn’t tell me you’re Gypsies!’
“‘You didn’t ask,’ mamma said sweetly. ‘I told you our income and paid you two months’ rent in advance. Did you ask my husband’s employers for a reference?’ She knew he hadn’t, not after he’d had a dose of her charm.
“‘Who ever heard of a Gypsy with a real job?’ he said, not answering her question. If he hadn’t been so smitten with mamma’s pretty face and had checked papà’s reference, he’d have learned papà is a seasonal worker. But we pay our rent on time. Mamma even told the landlord our real income—that is, at least our potential when everything pans out as we hope and the tourists are feeling generous.”
Flora stopped in front of a battered wooden door next to a clothing store and pulled it open with a firm yank. Inside she flicked on a light to illuminate a dark stairway and then slammed the outside door behind them. At the top of the stairs, Flora took a key out of a pocket in her skirt, unlocked and opened the shiny yellow door, and invited Polly inside.
The apartment sparkled with colorful fabrics. Decorative objects and art filled the surfaces and walls. The front window was almost as large as a storefront, but white lace curtains softened the effect.
Flora turned toward Polly. “This apartment is much nicer than the trailer we used to have in the old camp. Look at what a great view we’ve got from here. I like to watch people walking up and down the street—so much variety. It’s so interesting to see the regulars day after day and spot the newcomers and tourists—see that family over there looking at a map? I’ll bet you they’re trying to figure out how to get to the Leaning Tower.”
“Isn’t everyone?” asked Sofia. Even before Sofia had spoken, Polly had had no doubt she was with them. The air felt different when Sofia was around—more exciting somehow.
Flora and Polly, and perhaps Sofia, too, settled into soft, comfortable chairs in the living room. A well-worn sofa that would be perfect for napping or reading sat under the big front window, and a spinet piano stood on the side wall. Just beyond the living room was a dining room filled with rustic but pleasing furniture, and through an archway, Polly could see a blue and yellow kitchen.
“It really is pretty in here,” contributed Sofia. “My favorites are the lace curtains and the dining-room furniture, especially that china closet.” She explained to Polly, “It’s been in their family for years and years. It once belonged to Flora’s great-grandparents—her bisnonno made it himself! He was and is a great guy; I see him from time to time. Most folks like me don’t hang around with folks like you as much as I do. But he keeps up with how Flora and her family are doing. Everything in this apartment squeaks in such a homey way—all the furniture and even the floor. Did you notice Flora’s great-grandmother’s clock over there by the piano?” There was no way Polly could have missed its loud “tick, tock.” Sofia’s commentary continued: “This place is like an orchestra of cheerful noises. I like to go to the symphony, so I know what I’m talking about.”
“Yeah,” said Flora, “I went with her once. She hums along! The people around us thought I was doing it and kept giving me dirty looks.”
“That’s what they get for letting in a Gypsy,” Sofia teased. “As I was saying, I love to visit here, but I can’t just show up any old time and start talking because Flora’s father doesn’t approve of me; her mother and little brothers like me okay, though. Her father doesn’t think it’s safe to be talking to spirits. Me dangerous, can you believe it?”
“Calm down, Sofia. My father has too much on his mind to be sensible all the time. It makes me sad when my parents have to work long hours doing things they don’t really like. My papà is a wonderful artist—that’s his painting of a horse over the table in the corner, and he did the little Gypsy violinist over the piano. Plus papà loves to read about all sorts of things, but he has to spend his days pounding nails. It’s not that he has anything to be ashamed about as far as his work—or anything—is concerned. It’s just that it’s not the right work for him, and it’s not steady, either. But when he’s not working, he feels so bad about not earning money for us, he doesn’t want to touch his art or even his books.
“Mamma throws herself into her flower selling and songs, acting the wild Gypsy all the way, but at home she’s proper and quiet. I think she’d really like to be the classy lady our landlord first took her to be. She is a classy lady through and through, but she hardly ever gets to show that side of herself in public.
“But as both my parents say, we have a lot to be thankful for. I can’t wait for you to meet my family, Polly. Mamma and papà are working today, and my little brothers are with our nonna. I know you’ll just love them all when you get to know them. They’ll like you, too.”
“Have you seen Charles today?” asked Sofia, changing the subject.
“Not once. I haven’t seen any of the guys.”
Sofia said to Polly, “You met Charles at Mme Meringue’s when you moved in. Sorry to bring up a sore subject, but you’ll recall that I was watching.”
“Yes, I remember—both Charles and your watching.” She realized Charles was the third Pisan—along with Mirella and Flora—Sofia had in mind to help. “Charles seemed nice, but he didn’t say much. Of course, I don’t always say much around Mme Meringue either. I saw him near the bar yesterday after I left school.”
“Charles is one of my favorite friends,” Flora said with enthusiasm. “He’s from Nigeria. He’s only fourteen and is living all by himself here in Pisa. Since he’s tall and looks a little older, he tells everyone he’s eighteen—that’s what Mme Meringue thinks—but he told Sofia and me the truth because we’re friends and trust each other. His father is in Italy, too, but in Rome because that way, they figure, they won’t be competing against each other in selling their baskets and carvings.
“Probably if you come to the bar—the one where we met—tomorrow after your class, you can get to talk to Charles. The sidewalk merchants are usually all there around that time—when Mme Meringue isn’t making trouble, that is.”
“What does she do?”
“You’ll see soon enough,” Sofia said dismissively. “Plan on being at the bar the way Flora said.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Polly gave a salute. She glanced down at her watch and was startled to see it was nearly 6:30. “I’d better get going. Mme Meringue will not be thrilled if I’m late.”
“My papà may be getting home soon—I wish you could meet him. But you’d better get going, too, Sofia, because I don’t trust you to keep quiet when he’s around.”
“No sooner said than done,” said Sofia rather haughtily, and immediately the air lost its extra shimmer.
“See you tomorrow, Polly. Can you slam the door at the bottom of the stairs? It sticks.”