Chicago, 1926


Retta stood on the cracked sidewalk in front of her new brick bungalow and scrutinized the exterior— definitely, she decided, a step up from the small apartment over Delaney’s Grocery Store in the Heart of Italy neighborhood. Though, on the plus side, her landlord there was a pushover and the rent was cheap. Mr. Delaney and his wife had operated the friendly neighborhood establishment for forty years and were the parents of ten children, Retta being the eldest.


Because she was within spitting distance of thirty, she had finally decided to spend the money she’d saved, diligently, two bits at a time. She had finally accumulated the down payment and enough money to move out. Not that she didn’t love both her parents. They were the berries. Even the myriad members of her large family could be tolerated most of the time. But Retta had dreams, and it was time.


She sucked in a deep breath, taking in the scents of overgrown honeysuckle and a neighbor’s burnt leaves, and then took the steps to her front door, juggling boxes.


Over the weekend, her brothers had moved most of her hand-me-down furniture: Aunt Millie’s large table lamp, which appeared to be a gnarled tree trunk with a hat; a semi-new mattress from her cousin Alberto, who had only slept in it for a month before deciding to follow his latest girlfriend and hike the Yukon; and Grandma Ellie’s everyday dishes. With tears running down her face, Retta’s mother had wrapped and boxed the lovely Irish bone china in butcher paper, and gave it freely, an endowment passed from one generation to another—Ellie to Rosa, and then to Retta.

She hoped the weather held until she unloaded everything. So far, mid-September had felt like Indian summer, but Grandma Ellie’s rheumatism called for rain today, and her aching bones were rarely wrong.


Luckily, her old Ford flivver had a lot of room. Hauling boxes and unpacking would take most of the morning, but she didn’t have to be back at the store until noon. Pop hadn’t filled her position yet, so she’d work part-time and train her potential replacement. Maggie caught on quickly, so it wouldn’t be a hardship to put the dream on hold a few more weeks.


After she climbed the steps to her small porch and unlocked the front door, she stood on the worn threshold and took a deep breath, savoring the moment. The old walnut floors were buffed to a soft gleam. Mismatched floral rugs gave the room what she chose to call a casual garden atmosphere. Windows sparkled, and beautifully crafted crown molding topped the tenfoot ceilings. The few pieces of furniture she owned had been cleaned and fluffed and polished. A bouquet of fragrant roses stood proudly on a half-round foyer table in her Irish grandmother’s Waterford vase, another parting gift from her mother, who always made sure her own home had fresh flowers regardless of the season.


Retta’s lips parted in a wide smile. All hers, just like the mortgage payment due to the bank next month—and forever after, according to the massive amount of paperwork she had signed. The sobering thought brought her back to reality and a fluttery feeling in the pit of her stomach. But, she reminded herself, she had saved every penny she got her hands on, examined her finances with a fine-toothed comb, and found a house she fell in love with. The rest would come in time.


She set the boxes on the foyer floor and turned to retrieve more.


“Hello, there. Are you my new neighbor?” a voice chirped out from next door. A slender woman about Retta’s own age, with long, curling auburn hair shoved under a floppy-brimmed felt hat, waved wildly from the sidewalk while the extremely large dog she held by a leash pulled her along. Retta walked to the end of her porch. The woman opened the gate in front of the house next door and locked it behind her before she unleashed the large animal and let the dog sprint to the back yard.


The woman leaned over her side of the fence separating their two bungalows. A crisp white blouse was tucked into a deep red gabardine skirt topped with a fancy blue blazer. Her makeup was flawless, her wide blue eyes expertly lined with kohl. Friendly freckles sprinkled over her nose, and her pointed chin made her appear like a spirited pixie.


“That’s one enormous dog you have there,” Retta commented. She had little experience with pets. There were always too many kids in the house to deal with dogs and cats.


“Aw…he’s a sweetheart—unless you’re the mailman, or any man, really. That guy there,” she said gaily, hooking a thumb at her dog, “is my judge and jury.” When the dog came to a skidding halt at her feet, she bent to give him a brisk rub. “I’m Philamena Doyle, and this big guy is Alexander the Great—Xander for short, an Irish wolfhound. I’ve had him for four years now.”


“I’m Fioretta Delaney. Glad to meet you, Philamena.”


“Call me Poppy,” the woman said. “My kid brother couldn’t say Philamena, so he called me ‘Poppy’ and it stuck.”


“Same here. Call me Retta. How long have you lived here?”


“I moved in a few months before the end of last year, almost a year now. I’m originally from a small town called Braceville, west of Chicago. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know where it is. No one does.” She laughed again, the sound of it light and lively. “Nice people but not much opportunity, work-wise.”


“Do you have time for a cup of joe? I’ve got a percolator in one of these boxes.”


“Thanks, but no thanks. I’ve got to skedaddle.” She reattached Xander’s leash to distract him from bolting after a squirrel who’d decided to climb the trellis covered with purple clematis on Retta’s side of the fence. “I work at Bell Telephone—shift work, switchboard operator. Eleven to seven this week, and I have a few errands to run before I head to work.”


“How do you like it? Shift work, I mean.”


“Oh, you get used to it. But I’ll take you up on the coffee tomorrow. We girls have to stick together.”


Poppy glanced over Retta’s shoulder, narrowed her eyes, and gestured with her chin. Retta turned to see a man pull up in front of the bungalow on the other side of her own. He rounded his shiny new, cream-colored Duesenberg convertible, carrying three brown paper bags, and took his front steps two at a time. From where she stood, he was one fine male specimen.


“Have you met the neighborhood sheik yet?” Poppy asked.


“Ah…no, is there a problem with him?”


“His name’s Sam Parnetti. He’s not bad to look at, and I got no kick with him, but he doesn’t work, as far as I can tell. Could be a dewdropper. I don’t see much of him during the day. He finally started to fix up his house last summer, and his car’s darb, but from where I sit, he’s no flipper.”


Poppy laughed again. “But, hey, maybe he just takes some getting used to. I’ll let you make up your own mind. Other than Sam and nosy Mrs. Johnston across the street”—she wrinkled her nose and gestured widely with her free hand—“the neighborhood’s a decent place to live.”


She took two steps backwards and tugged on Xander’s leash. “Gotta get a giggle on. Hey, let’s get together soon. How about tomorrow morning, about eight, for that cup of joe? I baked a pound cake when I noticed you were moving in.”


“Nifty. I usually go to six o’clock mass at Saint Matthew’s, and I have a friend coming over to help me unpack, but not until two o’clock, so eight sounds perfect. You bring the pound cake, and I’ll make the coffee. I’m bedding down here tonight for the first time, so I’ll see you in the morning. Nice to meet you, Poppy.” 


“Same goes. See ya!”


After Poppy strolled off, Retta thought about what the girl had said about their neighbor. She didn’t consider herself an expert on men, but growing up with four brothers, she wasn’t naïve, either. And besides, she’d dated plenty. Well…maybe not plenty, but she’d had a few boyfriends over the years. It wasn’t that she was picky; she just hadn’t met the right man and was beginning to wonder if she ever would.


Most of her friends had gotten engaged or married straight out of high school and already had children—as did three of her sisters and three of her brothers. Besides herself, only her eighteen-year-old twin sisters and youngest brother were still unshackled—and both girls had serious beaux.


She glanced back at the man’s brick bungalow, a mirror image of her own—except for the rundown porch, which appeared to be in the process of being repaired. The trim could use a coat of paint, and the yard…well, to call it a yard would be generous. Would it kill the man to plant a flower? She couldn’t wait to start digging in her own dirt, but other than planting a few tulip bulbs before winter set in, she would have to wait until spring.


While Retta appreciated her newly found freedom, she’d miss the company of her large, unruly family, even if they were only a telephone call away or ten minutes by automobile. A girl needed her girlfriends, so she would enjoy the possibility of a new friend next door.


She traipsed down the front steps to grab a few more boxes. Time to start settling in.


****


​Sam Parnetti appreciated women, everything about them. They smelled better than his buddies, had softer skin, were sweet by nature, and biddable—at least the ones he chose for himself.


He appreciated all types, sizes, and any measure of beauty. Some had warm smiles, some had beautiful hair, and while some were tall and willowy, others were short and curvy. He appreciated the female form and routinely drew it as a source of income. Of course, the females he drew were a bit more endowed than in real life.


But the new one next door talking to Crazy Lady had possibilities. His first thought: her long, dark brown hair wasn’t bobbed—thank the Lord. His second, a woman with those kinds of curves could be dangerous. He’d gone a long time without a serious relationship. Jenny had cured him of thinking in terms of anything permanent, so he sought out girls who just wanted to have fun and who, like him, wanted to keep things casual. Which meant nice girls were off the list. Besides, nice girls could break your heart.


He set the grocery bags on his new Formica counter and rummaged around inside one of them for the bottle of aspirin—the reason for the trip to the grocery store. He downed three with a long drink of water and rubbed the cool glass across his forehead. Maybe meeting Carl and Bryan at O’Rourke’s gin mill and getting ossified hadn’t been such a terrific idea. He had a cover due in two days for The Popular Magazine, and he’d yet to put brush to canvas. The first of the October issues would feature the American West, so he had to produce a cover with a handsome, virile cowboy and a lovely cowgirl to attract the buying public. 


He watched from his bay window as his new neighbor made several trips to her old flivver for more boxes. She’d used a rubber band to pull her rich brown hair into a thick tail at the nape of her neck. The bulky sweater she wore didn’t hide her generous bosom, nor did the worn trousers hide her delectable derrière. She was tall, with endless legs—he guessed about five foot eight. Strong, if the way she hefted the heavy boxes was any evidence. He wished he could get a closer look, but from a distance she appeared to be whistle bait. He wanted to paint her. Preferably with less clothing.


Sam’s attention was pulled from his new neighbor when his mailman strolled up the walk with a stack of mail and a small package. Sam met him at the door. “Hey, Fred, how’s it going?”


“Mornin’ to ya, Sam,” the man said, tipping his uniform cap. He sorted through a few envelopes. “Gotta say, even with the clouds, sure is decent weather for mid-September. Must be at least seventy degrees today.”


“Great news for you,” Sam pointed out. Fred still wore the typical summer weather postal uniform—a neat, loose-fitting blouse of light-gray chambray with a dark tie instead of coat and vest. His badge number was set over the brim of his cap. The man had six nickelplated stars set half an inch above the braid on his sleeve, indicating thirty years of service. Sam figured the man would be retiring soon.


Fred gave a chuckle. “Ain’t that the truth? But ya know, ‘neither snow nor rain nor dark of night’—”


“Yeah, yeah, tell it to Sweeney,” Sam interrupted with a wave of his hand. “We know how bad you guys have it.”


Fred laughed again and wiped the back of his neck with a natty handkerchief. “I got a package and some bills here for ya.”


Sam took the mail and stepped back. “Thanks, Fred. Don’t take any wooden nickels.”


As Sam shut the screen door and plopped onto the sofa to open the mail, he thought maybe he’d make himself a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. Or better yet, maybe he’d go to Smiley’s Diner for Saturday’s meatloaf special and eliminate the need to cook. Not that he minded cooking. He even enjoyed the process occasionally. He and his brother had learned to cook at an early age; otherwise they went hungry. Mom wasn’t exactly a whiz in the kitchen, not that she didn’t try, but her efforts usually involved burnt pans, dried out meat, and indistinguishable vegetables.


Flipping through the envelopes, one from his mother caught his eye. He sliced it open with one finger. The letter reported his father was out of the hospital and recuperating well. When the man had acute stomach pains and ended up in the emergency room, the whole family panicked. Luckily, the pain turned out to be appendicitis, not a heart attack, and the doctors operated quickly. He made a mental note to telephone his mother after lunch.


When he got to the end of his mail, he realized the paycheck for August’s two covers was missing. He took a minute to curse creatively. The check was two days late, and his mortgage payment was due at the end of September. Next month, he’d pick up the check at the magazine’s downtown office to make sure he received his money on time.


Sam set the mail aside and picked up the small package Fred had delivered. He shook it; no rattle, and light enough to make him wonder if the box was empty. He was ready to tear open the brown paper when he noticed the box didn’t have his address on it but one for the house next door. So…her name was Fioretta Delaney, and he already knew she was a biscuit. Maybe he should be neighborly and return her mail. What better way to meet her? It was like a sign from God.


****


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