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Rosetta Glynn and the Aroma of Hope
GLYNN greeted me at the big wooden door when I returned on Saturday afternoon.
She wore a look that I recognized: the look of someone with a story to
tell, sizing up her audience with bright, curious eyes. She nodded,
smiled a tiny smile, and led me to the kitchen, where, I expected, she
would tell me about the night the Nevsky mansion burned. Everyone
She took a seat at a round table that still held
the remains of lunch. No one else was around.
“Have something,” she said.
She waved her hand across the table and finished the gesture
by letting her hand fall limply onto a cigarette pack, which she lifted
as if it were considerably heavier than the cigarette packs my parents
had around the house. She took a cigarette from the pack, and while
she went through the business of lighting it, I took a roll from a pile
of several on an earthenware platter. The roll had an unfamiliar
shape. I took a bite. It had an unfamiliar flavor.
“Mm, this is good,” I said. “What is it?”
She exhaled and squinted through the smoke.
An odd look came over her face, part grimace and part smile, a look of
grudging reminiscence, as if she couldn’t keep herself from remembering,
though she would really rather not.
“Well,” she said, and shrugged, “it’s a roll.”
“Mm,” I said, and I took another bite.
“To you,” she said, “it’s a roll.” She looked
at me and raised an eyebrow.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“But it’s more than that, you know,” she added,
and she winked and waved away some of the smoke. “Much, much more.”
She paused. “To me—to me, it’s hope.”
Here we go, I thought.
She got up from the table with a weary sigh and
went to a cupboard over the sink, where she got a fancy bottle with a circular
body. I tried to read the label, but the words all seemed to be misprinted
or backward, and the largest word was nearly obscured by an elaborate drawing
of vines. As well as I could make it out, it seemed to say SLIVOVITZ,
but that didn’t match any words I knew, so I assumed that I was wrong.
From another cupboard, she got a tiny tumbler, no bigger than a shot glass,
but thin and fragile and delicate and ladylike. She returned to the
table, set the bottle and the tiny glass down, sighed, smiled a queer,
funny, endearing twisted smile, shook her head, sat, uncorked the bottle,
filled the tiny glass, and set the bottle down beside the glass.
Then, apparently on impulse, she took another roll
from the platter, broke it in half, and held the halves to her face.
She drew a long breath, inhaling the aroma of the roll.
“Smell it,” she said.
I did as she had done. The aroma was wonderfully
rich and yeasty, almost too much for me.
“That’s hope you smell,” she said.
She put the roll back on the platter and said, “I’ll tell you why I say
that.” She lifted the glass, took a sip, and said, “We had to get
out, of course.” She looked for some sign of understanding from me.
“You know,” she said.
I didn’t, but I nodded and said, “Mm.”
“The Fascists,” she said.
“Oh!” I said. “Yeah.” I knew who they
were, in a way. They had been the bad guys in the war comics, the
official enemies of our tribe, before the Gooks, Chinks, and Russkies came
“Yes, yes. That’s why. The Fascists.
Andrew—but of course he wasn’t Andrew then—was a marked man, a very comical
man, very funny. He was a cartoonist then, you know. A caricaturist.
He was very popular—very, very popular. He was even in a nightclub,
as an entertainer. He would go around and make pictures of people—not
just the way someone would go around and sell you cigarettes or take your
photograph. No, he was a performer, with a spotlight on him.
Such a big man, you know.”
A smile, a sip.
“He had a pad of paper mounted on a board that he
held in the crook of his arm—like this—and in a hole in the board a pot
of paint. Black paint. One big brush. And he would make
his pictures with big gestures—like this—big swooping gestures. His
pictures often appeared in the papers, too. Very often. People
always laughed, even the people he drew. They were flattered
to have him make their pictures. They were happy to join in the laughter
at themselves because—because they were—people. We like attention,
you know, people, and we know how ridiculous we are. It’s
one of the ways you can spot us. You catch us laughing, and you know
we’re human.” She leaned toward me through the smoke. “It’s
a dead giveaway,” she said.
She poured a little more into the tiny tumbler.
“Then those Fascists came in,” she said. “Andrew
made such comical pictures of them all—those Fascists. For the papers,
you understand. And then, pretty soon, they ran all the papers—those
Fascists. And they didn’t want to look comical. So he made
his drawings for the walls. Huge.”
She looked up at the stone wall and swept her hand
to indicate the grand size of Andy’s caricatures and shook her head at
the inadequacy of her gesture. I thought of the scaffolding in the
studio and the enormous size of the painting he was working on. “Uh-huh,”
I said. “I understand.”
“Good,” she said. “Huge caricatures, and more
comical than ever. He painted by night. And he signed his pictures
with a little drawing of a bat.”
She took a sip. “Well, you know, there was
a price offered, a price offered for him, for ‘The Bat.’ Money, you
know. When money is offered, you would be very surprised how cheap
you can buy someone. How cheap it is to buy a betrayal. Trust
comes dear,” she said, “but treachery is cheap.”
She took a sip. There was a long silence.
I had no idea what she was talking about, so I had no idea what to say.
“So!” she said at last. “We had to go.
We got to the border—well, that’s another story, but we got to the border.
We had some friends. Some people can’t be bought. But when
we got near to the border, we had to wait and wait for the time to get
across. We were hiding in the cellar of a hotel, and we waited there
for days and days and days.” Another sip. “At night, the despair
would come over me, you know?”
“Mm,” I said.
“I would start to tremble and I would try to disappear
into the darkest corner, and I wouldn’t sleep for the whole night, until,
in the morning, but before the light, the bakers would start to work, and
in a while I would smell something good. You know what?”
“The rolls,” I said.
“Yes! Yes! The rolls. I would
smell them baking, and I would know that the day was coming, and the night
was nearly over, and then I would fall asleep. When I woke up, ‘Andrew’
would have a roll for me, and I’d know that I was still alive.”
She looked at me.
“So you understand why these rolls are hope to me.”
It was not a question.
“Yes,” I said.
A moment passed in silence. I had a question
to ask, but I thought that after the story she had told me an interval
should be allowed to pass. Her story was, I understood, a story with
a point, a point about hope and loyalty and betrayal. Often a story
about the night the Nevsky mansion burned aspired to a point, too, and
I had learned that the storyteller expected an interval of silent appreciation
before the listener asked for clarification of any of the fuzzy details,
so I let a moment pass.
Then I asked my question. “Um—you said, ‘but
of course he wasn’t Andrew then,’ so—you mean your names aren’t really
your names? You’re not really Mr. and Mrs. Glynn? Andrew and
Another sip. “It’s an interesting word,
she said. “We ‘really’ are Andrew and Rosetta. Legally, we
are Andrew and Rosetta. But we were—someone else. And
we were called—something else.” She wrinkled her nose. “We
became Andrew and Rosetta after we crossed the border.”