I was alone, looking at the beautiful tangle of milkweed, when I heard something behind me, humming like a bee. I was six. My parents and Daniel and Teresa had gone out for ice cream with my grandfather, in his candy-apple car with shark fins. He knew the best place to get ice cream. I’d stayed behind, daydreaming in front of the milkweed growing all over the side of his garage, which was separate from the house—like a playhouse—and covered in black-grained shingles like giant thumbprints. The milkweed had dozens of leaves and hard green pods like crescent moons. We pricked the pods with toothpicks to make milkweed dogs or milkweed horses, beads of milk running down each skinny wooden leg, like the tears on the white stone face of the statue of the Blessed Mother in Nana’s garden after it rained.
I didn’t understand why some plants were called weeds when they were as pretty as flowers. We would hold buttercups under each other’s chins, saying: Do you love butter? and smears of yellow light would appear. Dandelions looked to me like tiny suns, and I liked the sweet smell of shaggy clover, white and pink and purple. Cows loved clover, Nana said, although we never got close enough to see what they ate. My father drove fast, whizzing past the fields of dairy farms, although not so fast that Daniel, who was eleven that year, didn’t have time to yell Inhale! as the stink of manure blew through the open windows, and Exhale! as it faded. Nana promised that we’d go to the County Fair to see the cows that won blue ribbons, but we never did.
When Nana was a little girl in Italy, there was an earthquake in her village, and she saw the earth open to bury a cow. When I imagined this, I thought of the shaky ground like a big rubber change purse: the slit snapped open, swallowing the cow like a quarter. Then the slit snapped shut, as if there never was any cow, never any hole splitting the ground.
I was afraid of bees, although I knew they ate clover to make honey. Their sting was worse than a spanking, although I almost never got spanked, unlike Daniel and Teresa. Earlier that summer, Daniel had taken my father’s old office chair and tied a rope tight to the greasy tube above the wheeled feet that made the chair so easy to push across our garage, which had a cement floor and room for two cars—nothing like my grandfather’s garage, whose dirt floor was filled with rusty, cobwebby old tools and paint cans.
Teresa, who at nine wasn’t afraid of anything, sat in the office chair and put her arms straight down, clamping her fingers to the underside of the leather cushion, while Daniel jerked the rope back and forth, making the chair spin faster and faster, and yelling: Behold, The Amazing Whizzer Chair! Teresa wanted one more ride—unlike me, she never got dizzy or sick—but then my mother came into the garage from the kitchen with a bag of garbage, and she was so upset that she dropped the bag and it split open. She smacked Daniel and Teresa, and told them they’d get worse when my father got home, and then she made them pick up all the garbage, even the coffee grounds that looked like steaming anthills.
Fearless Teresa told Daniel that they should stuff their underpants with the rabbit skins that my grandfather had given them. My father never noticed, and after he spanked them with the big slotted spoon my mother used to boil spaghetti, Teresa boasted that it didn’t really hurt.
I was alone, looking at the beautiful tangle of milkweed, when I heard something behind me, humming like a bee. I was six. I’d read in “Ask Dr. Alcott,” the medical column in the newspaper, that bees could paralyze you with their sting—like being dead, but worse. In addition to the newspaper, I was reading my second cousin Toni’s Louisa May Alcott books. Toni was twelve, a few months older than Daniel. Her real name was Antinetta, but she made everyone call her Toni. She had dark brown hair as thick and curly as the girl in the photo on the Toni home permanent box. My hair was thin and straight, and I wore plastic barrettes with teeth and metal hinges; anything else slid out onto the floor.
Toni’s favorite Louisa May Alcott book was Eight Cousins, about a pretty girl with seven boy cousins, but I liked Little Men, the book in which Jo and the Professor turn mean Aunt March’s house into a school for boys. I hated the part in Little Women when Jo married the Professor, who said luff instead of love—just like someone from the Old Country who couldn’t speak English properly—while stupid pretty Amy got to marry Laurie, even after she burned up the story that Jo wrote. But in Little Men, Jo and Laurie are still friends, and Jo still calls him by her pet name, Teddy.
After Easter break that year, Toni brought me to her sixth grade class for show and tell, saying: This is my cousin Allegra, and she can read my books. The teacher didn’t believe this, of course—I was small for six, although Nana always gave me extra helpings, putting her hands on hips covered with an apron and saying: Now eat! I loved Nana and her bib aprons, with their faded blue flowers and smell of soap and baking bread.
Of course, Toni’s teacher made me come to the front of the classroom with the copy of Little Men. She took the book out of my hands, and snapped through the pages like playing cards. I’m going to choose a passage at random, Allegra, she said. Start here—and she tapped her finger with its bitten nail at the beginning of a paragraph. I remember feeling like a tightrope walker in a circus, because I knew the teacher wanted me to fall. She stood so that she could read over my shoulder, her ugly fingers crossed against her no-chest, her no-lips pressed together, her faded hair in silly curls that she probably twisted up with bobby pins every night. But I wasn’t afraid; I held on to the book like a balance pole. I stumbled once, over confounded—the teacher smiled then—but after I’d read two pages, the teacher said: Enough. Allegra. You. Did. Very. Well. Words like scissors, snipping a dotted line.
When I sat back down next to Toni, Sandy Siedlecki—who could barely read, although Toni had a crush on him because he was blond and tall—whispered: You little freak. It sounded as if the whisper was coming out of the teacher’s mouth, as if the teacher was a ventriloquist and Sandy was her dummy.
I was alone, looking at the beautiful tangle of milkweed, when I heard something behind me, humming like a bee. I was six. Toni lived next door to my grandparents. She was an only child, and had her own room and toys that I didn’t—Barbie’s Dream House and Barbie’s convertible, and every outfit made for Barbie, including the strapless gold nightclub gown and the wedding dress. Although Toni said that she was getting too old to play Barbies, she and I staged many weddings for Barbie and Ken. I knew they were faked, because Barbie had all the things she wanted for herself—the house and the car and the clothes, and high-heeled shoes in every color, along with gloves and purses and hats. Toni usually was nice enough to let me dress Barbie instead of Barbie’s plain friend Midge, who had freckles on her nose like pimples, and red hair as thin but not as soft as mine. When Midge wore anything of Barbie’s—she came with an ugly brown suit, like Toni’s teacher—I had to stuff a Kleenex in her front to fill her out.
I was alone, looking at the beautiful tangle of milkweed, when I heard something behind me, humming like a bee. I was six. There was a room behind Toni’s house—stuck on to Toni’s house, although it had its own door—where Nonno Jo-Jo lived. He was Nana and Aunt Polly’s father. Nonno Jo-Jo was old, older than anyone else I knew—although I didn’t really know him, because he hardly came out of his room-house. Nana cooked extra food for him every day, and then left it in a pot on the steps to his door. Nonno Jo-Jo wouldn’t eat any other food, and you couldn’t fool him by putting Aunt Polly’s spaghetti in Nana’s pot. I understood that. Aunt Polly’s spaghetti was watery, and tasted like plain tomatoes; it wouldn’t have fooled me either. Every once in a while I saw Nonno Jo-Jo’s door open, and a pot being taken in or put out, but I didn’t see him.
Except for one time, when Nonno Jo-Jo came out of his door and shuffled across the lawn and driveway to Nana’s weeping willow tree, where I was playing a game called “The Smiths” with Toni and Daniel and Teresa. The Smiths were a rich Protestant family; Daniel and Teresa were Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Toni was their housekeeper and nanny. I used to get mad because they wanted me to be the little girl. I’d say, No, Toni’s nasty old baby doll can be the little girl—I’m Mrs. Jones, a millionaire visiting from New York City.
All of a sudden, Nonno Jo-Jo was standing right in front of us, his face twitching like a mouse without whiskers, his eyes blank behind thick glasses, his gray hair combed straight back. He was wearing a yellowed shirt with suspenders and heavy wool trousers and thick leather shoes, like Old Country men did. He said: You kids. You-a my kids, right? You-a want Nonno Jo-Jo a-give-a you a quarter?
A quarter was a lot of money, but I looked at Toni first—because she was the oldest cousin, and because the old man lived in her house, sort of. Toni nodded her head, so I said—we all said—Yes, please, Nonno Jo-Jo, and Thank you, grazie, Nonno Jo-Jo. He fumbled with a rubber change purse—like the one I imagined swallowed the Italian cow in Nana’s earthquake—and then he placed one quarter in each of our outstretched palms. When he got close, I noticed his bad smell—dirty clothes and cigarettes, and something that stung my nose like the rubbing alcohol my mother put on a cotton ball before brushing it over our knees when they got scraped. Inhale…Exhale.
Nana came out into the yard just then, banging the screen door, and looked at Nonno Jo-Jo—she just looked at him, not saying anything. Nonno Jo-Jo shrugged his shoulders at her—as if he was apologizing for something, or as if he wasn’t apologizing for anything—and then he shuffled back to his room-house. Nana said: You kids get ready for supper, and her voice was sharp, as if her words were coming out of my mother’s mouth, as if my mother was a ventriloquist and Nana was her dummy.
I was alone, looking at the beautiful tangle of milkweed, when I heard something behind me, humming like a bee. I was six. For a moment, I thought it was Toni, teasing me by putting her hands over my eyes—but the hands were like bandages, and the person was taller than Toni. Then I smelled Nonno Jo-Jo, dirty clothes and cigarettes and rubbing alcohol, and he was pressing himself against me. All I could see was milkweed, the hard pods that leaked sap when you pierced them, because Nonno Jo-Jo was putting his smelly hands down the front of my shirt, into my pants, and then into my panties as if he was a doctor, but he wasn’t a doctor, and he was rubbing and saying something like You-a, you-a, and I was paralyzed as if by a bee sting, but somehow I managed to scream and fall in front of the milkweed as if I was praying to it, and then Nonno Jo-Jo was gone, and I raised myself in crumpled pieces, and on shaking toothpick legs I ran into Nana’s house, into Nana’s apron, which like a miracle still smelled like soap and baking bread.
Nana stroked my thin hair and said, Allegra, my poor bella, and then she carried me into the bathroom and ran a bath in the deep green tub. I remember her washing me in the tub with a pink washcloth—as if I were a baby—and drying me off and helping me to dress in clean panties and a clean shirt and shorts and fresh socks. Nana tied the laces of my sneakers, combed my hair, and snapped a barrette into it. Then she pulled me into her lap and rocked me as she hummed a tune from the radio, “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.”
I don’t know how long we sat like that. I remember hearing my grandfather’s car, and scrambling out of Nana’s lap and going to sit in a chair at the kitchen table, as if all I wanted for myself was the ice cream my father carried in a round white container that said in handwritten black marker, ROCKY ROAD.
Everyone was laughing, and I forced myself to eat, each spoonful sliding down my throat like a frozen stone. No one else noticed that I had changed my clothes, or even that my hair was wet.
Angele Ellis is the author of Arab on Radar (Six Gallery), poems from which earned her an Individual Artist Grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and Spared (A Main Street Rag Editors’ Choice Chapbook). Her fiction has appeared in yawp, Grey Sparrow, Eunoia Review, Go Read Your Lunch, Voices from the Attic, and Dionne’s Story 2, and is forthcoming in The Rapid Eye. She was a prizewinner in the 2007 RAWI Competition for Creative Prose for “Desert Storms,” an early version of a chapter of her novel in progress. She lives in Pittsburgh.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: The genesis of “Milkweed” was a long-suppressed memory, which then marinated in my consciousness for years before I was able to transform it into fiction.
Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: Mizna, Al-Jadid, Rattle, Gulf Coast, American Book Review.
Q: What would your ideal writing day be?
A: The closest I came to an ideal writing day was during a month spent at a writers’ retreat in Costa Rica. Up at dawn to draft my poem of the day, breakfast on the main verandah, back to my cottage to redraft the poem, break for a light lunch on my porch, afternoon spent writing a connected series of stories (one of which became “Milkweed”), up to the verandah again for supper and some conversation, and then back to my cottage for reading and rest. But one can’t live in Paradise forever. (After a while, it gets lonely and a bit boring.)
Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?
A: I live half a block from a busy urban street, but on my tree-lined alley, nothing is stirring right now except the finches.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My goal this year is to finish a draft of a novel, whose manuscript title is “Desert Storms.” Three excerpts have been published as short stories—but that isn’t prodding me as much as it should!