Log Cabin Chronicles

Antonio is being dreamed


tony sat in a high-back chair where he had been placed for lunch. A cloth belt was tied at his waist to keep him from falling. The tray was snugged against his chest. His large hands were folded, aching from gripping the tray's edge.

The July sunlight glinted hard through the west window like slivers of steel. It forced his eyelids closed. The sun's heat soothed his bones. Images danced across his mind. He welcomed their coming.

    He was seated at a table in a sunlit yard. The whitewashed house reflected the light so brightly he squinted. The table was too high for him to reach the food placed there, but when he tried to pull himself nearer, the effort hurt his arms.

    "Mama," he called. "Come and lift me up."

    His mother appeared at the open doorway, drying her hands on her apron as she came toward him. She bent over him and pushed his thick curly hair from his forehead, then cupped his small chin in her hand.

    "Antonio, my dear sweet baby. Be a good man and get down until the others have come. Go now and see if those chickens have hidden any eggs. I will need three more if I'm to make a proper meal."

    She lifted him down and returned to the house. Chickens and guineas scattered in a flurry of noise and dust as Antonio ran through the deep dirt troughs where the birds were dusting. He pulled two baby goats from a cool spot near the garden wall. Kneeling, he reached his small brown hand under the foundation stones and groped until his fingers felt two smooth eggs. Carefully, he lifted them out and rolled them in his shirt. His mother would be so proud of him. He was not a baby but could be trusted with many chores.

    As he rounded the corner of the house, the sun blinded him. He tripped over a goat, and fell. Antonio felt the sticky eggs run down his stomach. He began to cry.

"Tony! Tony! Wake up. You were dreaming. Here, stop now. You'll hurt yourself thrashing like that. Calm down and I'll take the tray. Would you like a drink of juice? The others will be coming in for dinner soon."

Tony woke and the window was dark. He was in bed, but not comfortable. The waist belt made it difficult to turn. His feet were very cold and his knees swollen. Soft light shone through a door behind him, making strange shadows in the room. Yesterday he thought he'd seen a man in the other bed, but now he wasn't certain. He could hear soft snoring and it comforted him.

    Antonio reached to tuck the blankets around his cold feet. He saw Old Chuck, the Chinee cook, asleep on the next cot in the flickering light of the kerosene lamp on the ground between them. No other tents were allowed the luxury of a night lamp, but Old Chuck was an honored member of the crew and his pleas for light to dispel night demons were heeded. Antonio was the youngest of the railroad crew. Younger than the boss knew.

    He had turned thirteen in May and decided he was old enough to leave school and work like a man. He and his three older sisters had come with their parents to New York when he was nine. The girls had immediately found work in the garment district and he had planned to join them.

    The springtime warmth did not lighten his father's mood nor improve his health, and Antonio's mother had taken on two more families' laundry. It hurt Antonio deeply to see her work so hard. Just after his birthday, he'd seen a flyer tacked near the Post Office door advertising openings for all strong-hearted men. It promised a dollar a day for honest labor on the Erie Railroad. He'd gone to the gathering place and stood in a cold rain with hundreds of other workers, then proudly signed his name on the roster. He told his family only minutes before his departure, added some biscuits to his gear, and left with the promise to send money.

    The freight ride was bewildering, but Antonio held fast to his dream of sending money to his mother. The long train was halted twice daily, morning and night, to distribute food and allow the men to exercise and spread fresh straw on the car floors. Antonio was thankful it was Spring, for the stench in the closed cars would have been unbearable in hot weather.

    Unable to return to sleep on the uncomfortable cot, Antonio felt his hope and joy give way to utter loneliness. His throat ached and he pushed his fists hard into his cheeks to keep from crying. His young body ached from long days of doing man's work. Sometimes too weary to eat, he fell into bed with his clothes stiff with grime and sweat. The blistering days of Midwest heat gave way to a brief Indian Summer. Each week he walked the tracks to town and faithfully posted a letter home. Then winds dense with biting snow roared down from the Great Lakes and Antonio longed for summer's heat.

"Tony! Rise and shine! How are we this morning? Didn't you sleep well? Look at this bed. You must have tossed and turned all night. I'm going to sit you on the commode while you wash up. Can't you stand and help a little? I know your legs hurt. They're just stiff. Hurry now so you'll be dressed when breakfast comes."

The woman smiled as she brought the tray into his room.

"Tony, how are you? You're looking well. Are you hungry? We've brought all your favorites -- homemade soup, fresh bread, and cherry pie. Could you have a glass of wine? It's just so good to see you. We miss you stopping by and our garden is a mess! Nothing like the neat rows when you helped. Would you like me to comb your hair? Your dog stopped by yesterday for a short visit. Wish there were some way we could bring him here to see you. Please try some soup. Here, let me help you. Oh, he's fallen asleep again."

    "Antonio, you haven't eaten any of the lovely soup, and I made it especially for you." Rosa pushed away from the table and stood beside him.

    "I don't understand why you're in such a fit. it's just not like you. I told you when you wrote that marriage was out of the question. It's not that I don't care for you. You're a dear, dear man, but I don't want to leave the city. I have good employment and Mama needs me now. If you would only wait and give me time to consider. But no, you just expect me to give up everything and go to some hill farm -- miles from all I know. I simply can't do it!"

    Rosa turned, her fashionable pumps striking sharply across the polished floor as she left the room. Antonio stayed the night. He stayed the week. He bought a shiny black Model T and he and Rosa were married. They drove to the farm, surrounded by heaps of finely sewn quilts and sleek city clothes. As they drove into the farm yard, Antonio's parents ran to greet them, their arms opened wide in welcome. "Don't drop those quilts, Antonio. The one on the top is for your mother."

"Tony, it's a beautiful morning to be alive! Let go of the covers so I can lift you up. Tony! Tony!"

Frances Bevency Errion keeps animals and writes in Cambridge, New York.

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Copyright © 1998 Frances Errion/Log Cabin Chronicles/6.97