Mme Meringue on a Mission
Flora beckoned to Polly: “Over here! Here’s Charles.” Polly recognized the boy she’d seen at Mme Meringue’s and later waved to on the sidewalk.
“Hi, Polly! Come, I’ll introduce you to everyone. This is Salime,” Charles said, indicating a middle-aged man whose greeting of “Piacere” had soft edges like Mme Meringue’s Italian. Polly shook hands with him. He was the man she’d greeted as she’d walked by on the way to catch the bus to meet Sofia at the Leaning Tower. Salime sold sunglasses and an array of colorful hats.
“Here’s Henry,” said Charles, introducing Polly to a handsome, tall young man who was arranging handbags on the sheet in front of him. He, too, said “Piacere” as he paused a moment in his work to smile at Polly.
“And this is Ibrahim.” A man wearing a hat and shirt in a kente-cloth design shook Polly’s hand. “Hi, Polly and Flora. And hi there, Sofia—I know you’re here, too. Try not to get us in trouble,” he said, grinning. “And they say we intimidate the tourists.” Ibrahim sold t-shirts. The ones in view said “Università di Pisa” on them.
After the introductions, Polly, Charles, Flora, and—Polly was sure—Sofia returned to a spot near the Bar Allegro, where the girls had met the day before, and sat down on the sidewalk where they could lean against the wall. In front of them, Charles’s baskets and carvings formed neat rows on the sheet spread out toward the curb. The beautiful baskets were made of colorful reeds woven into pretty round shapes, like bowls and vases with lids. The carvings depicted animals—antelope, elephants, and zebras—or were in the form of masks that might have hidden the face of a warrior or an actor depicting mighty and fearsome scenes.
Polly felt content in the company of new friends and was enjoying looking around at the passersby. She could see down as far as the train station and back north as far as the Piazza Vittorio Emanuale II. Her contentment was short lived, however, because there trotting toward them along the side street was none other than her very own landlady. She was moving with a speed and determination that could only mean one thing: she was on a mission. “Look who’s coming,” said Polly.
“God’s chosen minion,” said Sofia, snickering.
“Now you keep quiet,” said Flora. “Charles doesn’t need any extra trouble from your upsetting her—and I don’t either, for that matter!”
The temperature was about ninety, and the humidity felt just as high. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The children and merchants were in the shade of the arcade, but Mme Meringue had had no such protection, and to Polly she looked most like a giant raspberry Popsicle beginning to melt. Her hot-pink sunbonnet drooped in front and on both sides, and her matching pink dress hung in damp wrinkles around her ample figure. She was breathing so hard by the time she reached them that Charles was prompted to say, “Mme Meringue, you should get something cool to drink.”
“No time, no time,” she muttered, having shuddered to a full stop right in front of him. “Charles, what are you doing here, after all I’ve talked to you about earning an honest living!”
“I’m sorry, signora,” Charles said politely. “I have to work. I have to support my family. And I have all the proper paperwork to be here.”
“Don’t contradict me! Don’t I pay you good wages to work for me?”
“I’m sorry, Mme Meringue. I would never talk back to you.”
Polly wondered how Charles could stay so calm and polite while she was having trouble not shouting at Mme Meringue about how unfair she was being.
“Come along home, Charles. I’ve offered to give you a room in my house, but you insist on living over signor Luigi’s smelly shop. I don’t understand you young people.”
“You’re very kind to me, signora, and I like working for you, but I have to do this work, too. It gives jobs to the people back home who make the baskets and carvings.”
“There’s no excuse for living outside the law, which is exactly what you’re doing. Maybe if you’d stop hanging around Gypsies”—she spat out the word and glared at Flora before turning back to Charles—“you wouldn’t be so blasé about outlaw activity.”
“I’m sorry, Mme Meringue,” Charles repeated calmly. “I’m behaving lawfully.”
“But is that true for all your friends here?” She waved her hand to indicate the other merchants. “You’re supporting lawlessness, even if you’re not technically breaking any laws yourself.”
“I’m sorry,” Charles repeated again.
“Sorry isn’t enough.” She seemed to notice Polly for the first time. “Polly, what are you doing here? What would your parents say!”
“She was just looking at my baskets,” said Charles.
But wanting to take a stand against her landlady’s prejudices, Polly said, “Flora here is my friend.”
Mme Meringue scowled again at Flora and then said, “You should go on home, Polly—now. I’m off to find agente Barto and make him do his duty. He’s no doubt hanging out in the station coffee bar instead of doing his job keeping our streets safe.
“It’s his break time about now,” said Flora.
Mme Meringue glared at her once more and turned to march on down the street past the merchants. Polly heard her say, “Go back home, all of you,” as she was alongside Ibrahim.
“Be careful in this heat, signora,” Salime said in a kind tone of voice, but the solid pink figure moved on toward the train station as if she hadn’t heard.
“What’s she going to do?” Polly asked, breaking the silence with which they’d watched Mme Meringue’s departure.
“Don’t worry. We go through this little routine with your landlady every couple of weeks,” said Charles, smiling.
“You said people back home make your baskets and carvings? They’re so pretty!”
“My mother and some of the other women in our little town make the baskets. My older brother goes around to lots of different towns and villages and buys the carvings from local artists. Then he sends them to my father and me to sell here in Italy. The money we earn—beyond what we need to live—goes back home to support our family. I have four little sisters and a little brother.”
“Don’t you feel lonely away from them?” asked Polly.
“It’s sad for our family to have to be split up like this, and I’m homesick a lot. I do miss my mother and brothers and sisters. I don’t get to see my father in Rome very much either because of the cost of the trip, but I’m lucky to have this opportunity to help out.” Charles spoke matter-of-factly, not sounding the least bit sorry for himself.
“Let’s get some mineral water while we still can,” Flora suggested.
Still feeling nervous in spite of Charles’s reassurance, Polly asked, “Is there going to be trouble?” A rumble of thunder seemed to underline ominous possibilities.
Flora answered, “Agente Barto is one of the nicest guys in Tuscany.”
And Sofia added, “Relax, we have it under control.”
“Your saying something is under control doesn’t make me feel very secure,” said Polly, “considering the little scene with Byron and Kinzica that had people thinking I was barking.”
“Ha, ha,” chuckled Sofia, not bothering to defend herself.
Big drops of rain began falling on the street. A flash of lightning brightened the dark afternoon, followed in seconds by a loud clap of thunder. “I’ll go get the water—my treat,” said Polly.
The bar was busy now with office workers stopping for an espresso on their way home. On the television suspended in the corner, the heroine of an American crime drama was mysteriously speaking Italian.
After waiting her turn, Polly almost asked for four mineral waters, frizzante, before remembering that Sofia didn’t drink and asking for tre acque minerali.
When she returned to distribute the water to her new friends, she found Flora and Sofia in near hysterics from laughing and Charles smiling as if in spite of himself. The rain was beating down, and it felt cozy there under the sheltering roof with these merry friends.
“Look who’s returning,” gasped Flora between uncontrolled giggles.
Coming closer with each second was the substantial pink figure who had left them a few minutes before. This time, the “Popsicle” was rapidly dissolving. The rain streaming off Mme Meringue’s hat made a waterfall surrounding her head, and the skirt of her dress clung to her legs so that she had to keep pulling at it to be able to walk. Accompanying her was a debonair police officer who managed to look dashing even as his own hat shed water and his well-tailored uniform shone with the rain. He was gallantly holding Mme Meringue’s arm as if to stop her from sliding all together into a large pink puddle.
“Don’t be so mean!” Polly said to her laughing friends, trying not to laugh herself but feeling uncomfortable, too.
“I’m sorry,” said Charles. “I feel a little bad for her.”
“Well I don’t,” answered Sofia, as she and Flora egged each other on with their laughing fit.
“Flora, you’d better be calm now,” Charles said in his usual mild way. “It’s just all the more difficult for agente Barto if we give her a hard time.”
The girls’ guffaws settled down into snickers. “And please stay quiet, Sofia,” Charles added.
“Wasn’t I good before?” Sofia asked in a voice so loud the approaching pair must have heard.
“This would be the right time to be good again,” Charles said calmly.
The three visible children sat against the wall, watching and listening as the policeman and Mme Meringue reached the shelter of the arcade. Henry, Salime, and Ibrahim remained on folding chairs near their merchandise.
“Here they are, just as I left them!” Polly heard Mme Meringue say in a voice that was intended to be heard. “They aren’t even afraid of the law!”
“Hi, Ibrahim. How’s the family, Salime? How’s business, Henry?” Agente Barto greeted them all. “Flora, my dear, how’s the accordion playing? Are you practicing scales the way I told you? Charles, I see you’ve met our young American visitor.” How, Polly wondered, did he know about her already? Had he heard about the dog episode on the Borgo Stretto?
At that, Mme Meringue said disgustedly, “You’re supposed to be arresting them, not making small talk! Do your job, agente Barto!” she commanded.
“Yes, signora. I see your point, if there’s anything illegal here. Well, men,” he said, addressing all of the merchants, “it looks as if I’ll need to see your sales permits or ask you to fold up. We have to help our Mme Meringue see that the rules are followed.”
“Beh,” observed Mme Meringue, “when I’m around to make you follow them. And Polly, why haven’t you gone home the way I asked you to? We can’t have you fraternizing with these people. What would your parents say about my supervision?”
Polly was sure she heard agente Barto whisper, “Hi, Sofia,” under cover of Mme Meringue’s voice. How did he know about her?
The men rolled up the sheets with their wares inside. “See you, agente Barto!” Salime called as he headed for the corner with his big pack slung over his back.
“Good day, Mme Meringue,” called Charles.
“Bye, Flora. Say hi to your mom,” said Ibrahim.
Again Mme Meringue’s comment was, “Beh,” but she added, “some raid,” and, “I’ll talk to you at home, Polly.” Mme Meringue headed back out into the rain in the direction of her house and walked as though oblivious to the weather.
“I’ll see you girls,” said agente Barto. “I left my coffee on the station bar. It’ll be cold by now,” he added with evident regret. The policeman glanced toward the retreating Mme Meringue, shook his head, and started back toward the station.
“Woo woo,” whistled Sofia at the back of the handsome officer.
He turned and called, “Behave yourself, Sofia! You’re too old for me.”
When he was out of earshot, Polly asked the other two girls, “If Charles has a permit, why did he leave, too?”
“Ibrahim is the only one who doesn’t have a permit,” Flora explained. “He’s applied, but it hasn’t come through yet. I found out that’s where the guys were yesterday—trying to learn what the delay is. The others don’t want Ibrahim singled out for trouble—and they don’t want agent Barto actually having to check permits in front of Mme Meringue. She’d like them all to go, legal or not. They don’t fit into her notion of the perfect Pisa.”
“Why doesn’t Mme Meringue report agente Barto to his boss if she thinks he’s not doing his job?”
“That’s easy,” said Sofia. “Agente Barto’s son—he’s called Enrico—was really crazy about Mme Meringue’s husband, Gustavo. Enrico had some problems at school, and Gustavo tutored him every week for a while. He even had meals sometimes with our Minou and Gustavo—she wasn’t so bad when her husband was alive. I think she still has a soft spot in her hard little heart for Enrico, even though he never did finish school and agente Barto worries about him a lot.”
“Enrico does odd jobs and hangs around with a rough crowd,” added Flora. “It’s too bad; he’s really cute.”
“No surprise about that,” said Sofia. “Look at his father.”
Maybe Sofia really did have a crush on agente Barto, thought Polly. Was that possible?