Insights and Early Plans
“Come on: let’s go tell signor Luigi what happened,” said Flora. “Charles and Henry’s room is over his shop, around the block. He lets the guys live there free—Sofia says it’s a nice big room, with a little bathroom and a hotplate and tiny refrigerator. Charles and Henry can come and go through a doorway off the alley, so then if some busybody like you-know-who asks signor Luigi if he’s seen any street merchants, he can honestly say no.”
Signor Luigi’s repair shop was filled with batteries and gears, and the smell of oil carried out the open door onto the street. Signor Luigi himself, a little man of about sixty, was sitting behind the counter, a disassembled radio in front of him. “Signor Luigi can fix anything!” exclaimed Flora.
“Hi, girls,” he said. “This must be Polly—welcome!” Did everyone in the city know about her, she wondered. “I take it there’s been a little trouble? I heard the boys on the stairs, but it’s early for quitting time.”
“That stupid Mme Meringue is at it again,” Flora said bitterly.
“Flora, sweetie, she’s really not stupid. I know how you feel, but she thinks she’s doing the right thing.”
“She’s a horrible troublemaker. She thinks she’s some kind of savior for our city, but I wish she’d just move back to wherever she came from and bother the French for a while.”
“She means well.”
“Beh,” responded Sofia, sounding for all the world like Mme Meringue.
“Hi there, Sofia,” said signor Luigi. “I thought you might be here.”
“What are we going to do? We’ve got to stop that woman!” Flora exclaimed. “Sooner or later she’ll figure out a way to drive every non-Italian street merchant and every single Gypsy from the city.”
Polly surprised herself by deciding to take charge of the situation: “We need to try to be calm. We have to look for an opportunity to change her mind a little about who and what are good and bad for Pisa.”
“By the time we change her mind, it may be too late,” moaned Flora.
Signor Luigi tried to calm her: “We won’t let things get that far. We’ll keep our eyes open, and meanwhile I’ll have a chat with agente Barto and try to learn how much pressure he’s getting to take some kind of action against our friends. I would be surprised if our Sofia didn’t have a few ideas of her own. Am I right, Sofia?”
“I might,” she answered smugly, offering no further explanation.
The heavy rain had withdrawn, leaving a light mist, but the girls’ clothes and hair were still soaked from their run to signor Luigi’s shop. As they started back down the street, Polly glanced behind her and saw signor Luigi turning the sign in his window so the “Closed” side faced the street. Around the block, the sidewalk of the boulevard leading out from the train station remained completely empty of its usual street merchants. “It looks so dull this way,” said Polly as they walked along.
“Some people wish it would always be this dull,” Sofia observed.
“Why? Who’s being hurt by Charles and the others?” asked Flora with anger still in her voice. “They’re not really breaking the law, no matter what Mme Meringue insinuates. Ibrahim’s permit should have come by now—he applied weeks ago—and the guys are hardly any big competition for the souvenir sellers up by the Leaning Tower.”
“Some people think that merchants like Charles scare off tourists by being pushy. Can you see any of the guys who work on this block acting pushy?” asked Sofia, her voice oozing disbelief at such a notion.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that intimidating-the-tourists claim a thousand times, but who ever met a tourist who was put off by someone selling souvenirs? Now me—that’s a different story. They’re all scared of us Gypsies, which upsets my parents—and me, too.”
Polly looked at her watch. “I’d better head home. With the state of mind Mme Meringue is in, I’d better not be late for supper.”
“We’ll walk you there,” said Flora, including Sofia in the plan.
“That’s okay, don’t ask me if I want to,” said Sofia, pretending to be miffed.
Polly, Sofia, and Flora turned onto a side street before reaching Piazza Vittorio Emanuale II. “Yesterday I saw a little lizard sunning himself in the piazza. He was so cute,” Flora chatted as they walked along. My favorite place to walk is way on past the Leaning Tower. Have you been out there, Polly, where the city ends?”
“No, so far I’ve only seen the main parts of town.”
“It’s neat how Pisa just stops. The next minute you’re walking past cornfields and those huge wheels of hay. The wildflowers along the edge of the road are so pretty. And the Carrara Mountains seem to be right at the end of the road—and it looks like you could ski in July on those marble summits.”
“That’s what I thought, too—I can see the mountains from my school window. I read that Michelangelo’s carving stone came from them,” said Polly, proud to have this knowledge.
“That’s right,” said Sofia, “and before that, my father and the other stonemasons got their marble there for the Leaning Tower. It was a huge job cutting the stone and transporting it to Pisa.”
When they were two houses away from Mme Meringue’s, Flora said, “Good luck with her tonight. No doubt you’ll hear about what evil creatures Gypsies are. Will I see you tomorrow?”
“Should we meet at the bar again?”
“Yes, let’s. See you in the afternoon—if I don’t decide to see you sooner,” Sofia giggled.
“No spying!” said Polly, softening the order with a smile.
“Hey, before you go, I have an idea,” said Sofia.
“Watch out,” Flora cautioned. “Sofia with an idea is pretty scary.”
“You know I’m the brains here, figuratively speaking. Anyway, Polly, why don’t you go introduce yourself to Mirella tomorrow on your lunch hour. She’ll be in her usual spot.”
“Won’t you introduce me?”
“I think you should go yourself. Mirella will be pleased. She has some fans, as you’ll discover, but most people just look at her as someone to avoid, not get to know, but you’ll like her, and she’ll open right up. You’ll get to know her best that way.”
“What will I say? I can’t just march up the steps and start talking.”
“Sure you can. Try it!”
“Sofia’s right. Mirella’s cool. She’ll be thrilled she’s gotten through to someone instead of scaring her off—that’s how she’ll take it.”
“Plus she’s heard about you from me already,” said Sofia.
“Well,” Polly began.
“Great! We’ll hear all about it tomorrow afternoon.” Sofia closed the discussion.
Polly felt nervous already. These new friends of hers surely did know how to be convincing. “I’ll try. I can’t promise. See you tomorrow.”
“Ciao,” called Sofia.
“Ciao,” called Flora as she turned to head back with her invisible friend.