S&R Fiction

S&R Fiction: "Business," by Teresa Milbrodt

The chandelier might have been there for months, sheathed by bushes and high weeds, or it might have been dropped off the week before we found it, me and Noni who had business sense even when we were ten and still friends.  It was the perfect time for something interesting to happen – the second week of summer vacation when reading comic books all day was losing its novelty and waiting on the curb for the ice cream truck seemed far too juvenile for our maturing young man minds.  By then I wasn’t asking Noni to go to the art museum with me anymore because I always took my sketchbook, tried to copy famous works since our art teacher said it was good practice.  Noni didn’t have much patience for my museum drawings unless I was copying a painting of a naked lady.

Those years weren’t bad.  Ma and I had enough to eat, she got me a new coat every winter, but there wasn’t much extra money so I spent a lot of time at the museum and the public library and in front of our building with Noni.

I don’t remember why we were poking around the vacant lot, what we could have been searching for, if anything.  The lot was bare dirt scattered with refuse — tires, cardboard boxes, a broken guitar, several hubcaps, odd bottles and pieces of wood, empty plastic bags that blew like tumbleweeds in a slight breeze.  Things were added by lazy tenants who didn’t want to go to the garbage dump and removed by homeless scavengers who slept on grates in front of apartment, a flow like commerce.  Near the back of the lot was a wooden fence and sudden patch of tall grass.

“Oh shit,” said Noni when he parted a mess of weeds with a dead rustle.  We had only recently learned the beauty of cuss words from Carlo, Noni’s older brother, and loved the way they sprang sharply from our tongues.  “Fucking shit,” he said.

“What the hell did you find?” I asked, tramping my way over to him.

“Man,” he said.  “I thought they only had this kind of shit in the movies.”

The chandelier was crystal, or rather crystals, thousands of them cut to diamond shapes and hanging like tears from a gold-colored framework about three feet in diameter, just small enough to be concealed by unkempt vegetation.

“Fuckin’ A,” I said because surprise sounded so much more effective when you used that word.  “Who the hell would dump something like this here?”

“Well, it’s ours now,” said Noni, who believed in the principal of finders keepers.

“Yeah,” I said, “ours.”  Noni didn’t always include me in his ventures, so I was pleased to be allowed a hand in this one.

“You think the gold’s real?” he asked, fingering the framework with the practiced hand of an antiques dealer.

“Hell if I know.”

“Shit, it’s chipping a bit here,” said Noni, pointing to a steel-gray fleck that shone dull and obscene through the gold.  “Not that it matters.  It’s still a pretty classy piece, even if it ain’t all real.  I can steal my ma’s glass cleaner for the afternoon, that and some rags.  We can get those crystals to really shine.  The shinier the better.”

“Fuckin’ got that right,” I said even though I was still in the dark as to Noni’s intentions.  When he got on a roll he didn’t bother to tell you exactly what was going on.

“How much money you got?” he said.  “We’re both gonna have to sink some cash into this to make it fly.  Carlo does good work, but the bastard ain’t cheap.”

“I have seventy-something cents on me,” I said, fingering the few coins in my pocket.  “More in my bank upstairs.  Maybe six, seven bucks?”

“I got five bucks,” said Noni, “and Carlo owes me a favor since I covered his ass last week, said he was staying with a friend overnight.”

“What was he doing?” I asked.

“How the hell should I know?” asked Noni.  “He don’t tell me.  Just says I should cover his ass if he ain’t home by ten.  Probably out with some girl.”  Noni took off his t-shirt and waded into the grass next to the chandelier, began wiping each crystal clean with the fabric.  I mimicked him even though my shirt was sweaty from a morning sitting on the front step of the apartment building, and stained yellow with mustard from the bologna sandwich I had for lunch.  The crystals were dusty and it felt nice to polish them, like shining the Crown Jewels.

“But we’re gonna need Carlo to build a stage for us,” said Noni who explained his plans beginning somewhere in the middle.  “Simple.  Not too expensive.  We’ll get plywood.  Enough for three walls, two sides and a back, with a pole across the front, something we can hang a sheet over for a curtain.”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding as I polished.  Carlo was the fabled king of the high school woodworking shop, famed for building a real go-cart that he’d later crashed into the front of Marzetti Produce.  The fact he had to pay fifty bucks for repairs to the store and damaged merchandise only added to his celebrity.

“And we’re going to have to borrow Sully’s lawnmower,” Noni said, his bare chest scrawny in the sunlight.  “But I bet he’d let us.  It’d be doing his work for him.”

Sully was the building maintenance man allegedly in charge of keeping this lot cleared and orderly, although his efforts were less than optimal.

“Carlo’s really gotta get that stage built for us before we do much clearing,” Noni said.  “Have to make sure nobody sees this until it’s time.  Then they won’t pay.  I think a dime is a fair price.  That freak show cost a whole quarter, but they had a lot of shit there.”

“Uh huh,” I said.  The circus had come to town in April, and Noni dragged me there every afternoon for two weeks.  He was not impressed by the bearded lady, sword-swallower, fire-eater, and lobster boy, but gravitated to the carnival barker, the way he used mere words to pull people towards him, wallets open, entering the tent as if hypnotized.

“That guy has magic,” Noni whispered to me as we sat on a bench and crammed popcorn into our mouths, listened to the barker as he lured even more patrons to see the ten-in-one.

“Ladeez and gents,” he chortled, waving his hands in great circles as if to draw the masses to his chest.  “What lies inside this tent is beyond your wildest dreams, past the gates of heaven and the fires of hell!”

Like zombies the crowd anted up their coins, lured by promises sprouting from the barker’s mouth.  Noni’s hands gripped the edge of the bench as he leaned forward, absorbing.  I drew the bearded lady in my sketchbook.  She looked a little like my Aunt Esther in Poughkeepsie who smelled of baby powder and fresh smoke.

“A dime,” said Noni as we continued to buff our find.  “That’s cheap enough for a chance to touch Marilyn Monroe’s chandelier.”

“Shit,” I said.  “We don’t know if this is Marilyn Monroe’s chandelier.”

“We don’t know if it ain’t,” said Noni.  And that was that.

When Noni got a plan, things happened disturbingly quickly.  He’d always seemed older than the rest of us, and even at ten he had a knack for getting things done.  Carlo had a knack for efficiency when money was concerned.  In two days he built our stage with three five-foot plywood squares and a beam across the top of the opening so Noni could hang one of his ma’s old flowered sheets.  Noni and I paid Carlo his seven bucks and hefted the stage to the vacant lot.  We left the chandelier at the back of the lot, and lifted the plywood enclosure around it so the curtain was about three feet from the wooden fence, facing away from the street.  It only took an afternoon for Noni and me to rip out the grass near the chandelier and the plywood box and mow the rest down to a reasonable height.  Noni took it upon himself to steal three Marilyn Monroe posters from the five-and-dime so we could decorate the outer plywood walls.

“Just in case someone don’t know who Marilyn is,” said Noni.  “She looks pretty enough to be important.”  Back then we didn’t know much about Marilyn Monroe ourselves, just that she was beautiful and an actress and had been married to Joe DiMaggio.  At ten years old we were starting to be interested in hips but weren’t sure why.

We opened on a Wednesday around noon, the time when the summer school crowd was released for the day and wandered home for lunch, wondering how to spend their afternoon of freedom.  Noni had already assumed his position on the edge of the sidewalk.  I was standing at the curtain, poised to let the customers in one by one for their minute with the chandelier.  We had decided that anything less seemed a little sparse for a whole dime.

“They can’t think we’re ripping them off,” said Noni, “but we can’t give ‘em too much time, either, gotta keep the customers coming back.”

I didn’t mind being the counter, the numbers man, while Noni plied the crowd.  Someone had to be timing “one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand…” to make sure everyone got their money’s worth, no more and no less.  Besides, I liked standing with the chandelier, sneaking a glimpse at it every once in awhile.  Our cleaning efforts and bottle of Windex had paid off, and on this clear day the chandelier sparkled like star fragments.  It made me feel good just to stand beside something that luxurious, like I was a real artist guarding his masterpiece.  Back then I didn’t figure I could ever make anything as beautiful as the chandelier

“Come one, come all,” Noni called in the carnival barker voice I was sure he’d been practicing in his room for the past few nights.  “See the most wonderful thing to happen to Forty-Fourth Street in over fifty years!  You won’t believe your eyes!”  The multiple Marilyns fluttered their hips in a slight gust of wind.

“What the hell?” said Danny Cardella, the boy who lived two floors down from me and smoked Pall Malls in the stairway.  He was one of the summer schoolers coming home with a backpack dangling over one shoulder and a less-than-excited expression.

“A chandelier,” Noni barked in his face, “a beautiful, wonderful, magnificent chandelier direct from the mansion of Marilyn Monroe!”  He flourished towards the voluptuous Marilyn’s two-dimensional figure.

“Who the hell cares?” said Danny who was discovering obscenity at the same time we were and using it with equal relish.

“Everybody cares,” said Noni.  “‘Cause she’s famous and she’s an actress and we’ve got her chandelier, her beautiful chandelier.  You’ve never seen anything like it in your life, and now you can for one thin dime.”

A crowd of summer schoolers started to converge in front of the vacant lot, if only to witness this conversation between two of the block’s most noted and loudmouthed boys.

“Eat shit,” said Danny.

“And it’s magic,” said Noni, gesturing towards the chandelier and me as he became more desperate for a sale.  His life as a barker was apparently more difficult than he thought it’d be.  I smiled big as I could and gave the crowd a little wave.

“I said eat shit,” said Danny, and turned away.

“Hey,” said Noni, snagging the other boy by his shirt collar.  “I’m not shitting you.  When I say something is magic, it’s goddamned magic.  This chandelier works fucking miracles.  You get sixty seconds to look at it, touch it, kiss the damn thing if you want.  Then you wait a bit and you get your miracle.”

“When?” said Danny, putting his hands in his pockets.  I crossed my fingers that he was searching for loose change.

“It’s a fucking miracle,” said Noni.  “You don’t time it, it just happens when it’s supposed to.”  He was breathing hard, glaring at Danny with dark and serious eyes.

“If you quit your damn yapping I’ll try it,” said Danny, surrendering his dime to Noni’s waiting palm, a hand I imagined was sweating profusely.  Danny swaggered to where I stood while Noni paced back and forth across the front of the lot.  He knew Danny could make or break him.  Noni had a big mouth but Danny had bigger fists.  Danny glared at me when he reached the stage, ducked his head to enter as I held back the curtain.  His gasp was slight, very slight, but audible.  I peeked inside and saw him on his knees, like he was at a shrine.  He rubbed one crystal between his fingers and I began to count to sixty-one thousand.

After Danny reemerged and wordlessly floated home, several other summer schoolers were curious enough to ante up their candy money.  Noni and I collected ten dimes that afternoon and considered it a decent return.

“Word will spread,” Noni said as we sat on the front step of the building that evening, sipping the Dr. Peppers we’d bought to celebrate.  “Tomorrow we’ll get an even bigger crowd.”  There was reason to believe him since most of us kids had been raised Roman Catholic and had a soft spot for the allegedly miraculous.

I sat outside with the chandelier that evening, leaning against the inner walls of our stage and drawing it in my sketchbook.  It was pretty enough to be in the museum, all those tiny and impossible crystals.  Each one made you think about it separately, who had cut it, held it, attached it so carefully to that ornate and chipping framework.  Even now, art is all about mystery to me — places I’ve not been, people I’ve not met, ideas I’ve not yet turned around in my head.  When I was ten I was sure the chandelier had come from Europe, one of those big castles I’d seen in Medieval art books at the public library.  I dreamed myself pacing their halls, gazing upwards to see chandelier after chandelier, fingering floral tapestries hanging from the wall, glimpsing lush paintings of the Virgin and child set in gold leaf frames.

The chandelier had been sent from a beautiful place, and it had found me in these grimy streets.  It had found me.  And of course, like me, it didn’t want to stay in the city forever.  It wanted to go back to its castle, its fabulous hall, and perhaps it would take me with it, a place where I could draw and not worry about car exhaust or cramped bedrooms.  Thinking about such things made it easier to drown out the summer noises of passing trucks, screaming children, mothers calling families home for canned dinners.  Even the deep, strange smell of plywood was comforting, almost musty like a castle, signaling that the chandelier was somehow making things different.  I could almost hear the Marilyn posters whispering of miracles.

At twelve-ten the next afternoon we spotted Danny from a block away, advancing with about fifteen kids in tow.  From a distance he looked like a very short Pied Piper of Hamlin.

“I got an “A” on my fuckin’ math test this morning,” he said.  “And that ain’t ever happened before.”  He presented Noni with another dime and marched back to where I stood, primed for another session with our chandelier.  Noni’s grin lit up like Christmas and he came into his element.

“Ladeez and gentlemen,” he cried, “come one and all to see our miraculous chandelier!  Touch it, kiss it, tell it your dearest wish, then step back and wait for the magic to begin!”

In ten minutes he enchanted half of the summer school crowd and a good many of the other neighborhood kids who had dawdled around all morning but refused to surrender their dimes.  The line of patrons stretched all the way across the front of the lot to the doors of the apartment building.  We collected over four dollars, some from kids who visited the chandelier more than once because, as Noni explained, it was only good for one miracle per dime.

After we won over the summer school crowd, they brought their brothers and sisters the next day.  We had twenty-some kids in the lot at any one time, mobbed in front of Noni.  They jostled, played cat’s cradle, practiced spelling words for the next day’s summer school test, yapped about what they were going to ask for and what they had asked for, told each other their wishes were stupid or neat or supposed to be a secret or else they wouldn’t come true.  Others meandered around the empty lot without paying anything, perhaps hoping if they were close enough to the chandelier something miraculous would rub off for free.

To his credit Noni didn’t give these wanderers any shit, he was too busy grinning and taking dimes.  I opened and closed the curtain and watched our customers — sweaty, snot-nosed, dirty-kneed, ice cream sticky.  True pilgrims.  I wanted them to wipe their hands before touching the chandelier, was willing to hold a wet towel or something at the stage entrance, but Noni rolled his eyes at me.

“We’re not their fucking mothers,” he said.  “We’re businessmen.”

So I shut up.  We were businessmen.  We were selling miracles.  And the chandelier started doing its stuff.

Catherine Gionetti found her gold ring that had been lost for a month.

Phillip Donaldo’s sore tooth stopped hurting.

Alice Monette’s aunt in Tampa sent her a train ticket to come and visit in August.

Danny got his second “A” in a row on a math test, and only missed one spelling word on the weekly quiz.

“Fuckin’ A,” he said to me right before his fifth visit to the chandelier.

We had a bona fide shrine on our hands, a cross between the Blarney Stone and the Church of the Nativity.  You could almost see the shadows of Virgin Mary and Marilyn Monroe waltzing around, touching cheeks, tousling the hair of those who waited in line.  The chandelier was otherworldly, not a product of our streets, and that alone was magic.

After our fourth day of commerce, I told Noni that I thought one of us should camp out with chandelier to be sure that nothing happened to it.

“You know,” I told him, “just so the garbage men don’t take it or some other kids don’t try to break the crystals or make off with them.”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding.  “We should guard the fucker.”

“I’ll do it,” I said valiantly.

“Okay,” Noni shrugged.  He’d never been one for sleeping outside.

I told Ma that I was staying the night with Noni, that maybe I’d start staying there every once in awhile over summer vacation.  His family had a color TV and we didn’t, so it made sense.  Ma was working two jobs and perfectly happy as long as she thought she knew where I was.  She, like most of the rest of the neighborhood, thought Noni was great.

“He’s a real smart boy,” she said.  “You’re doing good to hang out with him.”

That evening I shined the chandelier thoroughly, could touch it all I wanted without Noni looking at me too weird.  I felt the crystals vibrate slightly in my hands like captured bumblebees, whispered to the chandelier as I worked.

“Long day, huh?” I said, selecting another crystal clean.  “You must get so tired of all of those kids coming in and out and asking for stuff.”  It didn’t seem appropriate to use the word “shit” in front of the chandelier, just like you wouldn’t use it in front of the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo.  Maybe a Picasso, but even that might be pushing it.

“I’m really happy you’re here in our lot.”  I didn’t know how much I should say to the chandelier because I didn’t want to see like I was brown-nosing.  I never asked it for anything directly, figuring that since I spent all day guarding it, the chandelier should know what my wishes would be, what miracles I’d request.

When I was done with the cleaning and Ma was dozing on the couch, lullabied to the sound of I Love Lucy, I wrestled a blanket off of my bed and dragged it downstairs with a pillow, out the front door and into the vacant lot where it collected dirt and dust like a rag.  But I was comfortable on the ground in our plywood display.  I brought my sketchpad and drew scenes that might have once been reflected in the chandelier’s crystals – opulent marble halls, green countryside pastures, brash purple mountains.

“You’re really something,” I told it.  “Someday I’ll own a chandelier like you, or maybe even clean you up.  Would you like that?  New crystals, new paint.  And I’ll hang you in my studio so you can watch me work.”  I was sure that everything I drew would be better in the light from a chandelier.

Before Pop left for Korea, when I was real little, Ma said we lived just outside the city in a house with a yard and garden.  We moved when Pop left because Ma wanted to be closer to my Grandma and Aunt Elizabeth.  Pop didn’t come back, so we stayed in the city.  I couldn’t really miss either of them, Pop or the house, since it was eight years earlier, when I was in diapers, and damned if I could remember any of it.  Noni’s pop went to Korea, too, and was still over there.  When I think about it, maybe that’s part of the reason we started hanging out.  Our fathers were together and so were we.  But sometimes I wished to be back in our old house, imagined I’d get a little room with an easel and desk with all of my paints and markers and pens.

“You’ll like living in my studio,” I told the chandelier before drifting off, soothed by the music from jazz clubs up the block, the sketchbook falling out of my hands.

            The woman with the violet-colored skirt and jacket arrived on a Wednesday morning, early, before many kids had shown up.  Noni, who was counting the change in his pocket, stiffened when he saw her approaching.  Something in his young entrepreneurial instinct alerted him to potential danger.

“This will be just perfect, don’t you think?” the lady announced.  She stood at the edge of the sidewalk in front of our lot, smiling and nodding with her hands on her hips.

“May I help you, lady?” said Noni, who was the most polite kid I knew when dealing with the adult population.

“No, no, my dear,” said the lady.  Her mouth was the color of a pink plastic carnation.  “We’re going to be helping you.  You like fresh vegetables, don’t you my dear?”

“Sure,” said Noni who dumped servings of peas into the garbage when his mother wasn’t looking and encouraged me to do the same when I had dinner at his apartment.

“Well, we’re going to make this lovely little lot into a community garden!  Won’t that be nice?”  She was practically clapping her hands with joy.  Previously I had only witnessed such exuberance on dish soap commercials when vile grease was magically lifted from a frying pan.

“This is our lot–” said Noni, but the woman had already breezed past him, plotting rows of vegetables with every step.

“If we hurry we can plant spinach and lettuce yet this summer, and certainly we’ll put in flower bulbs in the fall.  I’m sure you’ll want to help us, my dears.”

“Um…” said Noni, walking towards her with his hands behind his back like a man unwilling to negotiate.

“The other women from the garden club and I have already made the arrangements to start hoeing and planting in three weeks,” she said, squatting down to pat the ground as if trying to make friends with it.  “In a month or two it will just be lovely!  The ladies will be so excited to meet you.  I’ll be seeing you soon, dears.”  She did an about face and left as briskly as she’d  appeared.  We watched her march, high-heeled and militant, back down the sidewalk.

“Fuck,” I said, but Noni just shrugged.

“Adults always say they’re going to do something and then they don’t,” he said.  “It’s all shit.  I’m going to whip your behind.  I’m going to buy you a bike.  And then nothing happens.”

I felt a bit better.  Ma had promised me an easel for a long time and I never got it.

The same day the lady came, Noni started having a few kids stand beside him and give testimonials as he took the dimes.  Danny and Catherine were blabbing to everyone about their personal miracles after touching Marilyn Monroe’s chandelier.

“I fucking aced the test,” said Danny, making a fist in the air like Noni had shown him to add to the effect.

“And I found my ring,” said Catherine, “and I never thought I’d find the ring ‘cause I thought it got dropped in the sink and then my dad said he wouldn’t take the sink apart and then I cried a lot and begged and he still wouldn’t do it and then–”

            Noni paid them a dime a day to yap, although Catherine would have done it for free since she liked talking and was sweet on Noni.  Pretty soon the vacant lot became a social center — girls playing jump-rope and jacks on the sidewalk or bare dirt, boys playing four square or marbles.  Some developed a chandelier habit and required a daily visit to ensure their luck.  Noni instituted a discount rate for kids who came every day — thirty-five cents covered five visits, and Noni, his head like the calculators we would someday own, kept track of all these accounts.  He got together a few guys to help clean up the lot, too, carry the garbage down to the dumpster in the alley half a block away.

            “Miracles’ll work better if this place doesn’t look so much like a fucking dump,” he said.

I spent all of my waking hours with the chandelier, inside or outside of its plywood-and-flowered-sheet enclosure.  I counted to sixty over and over, slept on my blanket beside the chandelier in the holy dirt while the three Marilyns stood guard outside.  Since Noni still wouldn’t let me stand by the entrance with a damp towel, after every other customer I made a point to clean all visible fingerprints from the chandelier’s crystals with the corner of my shirt.

“Shit,” I said to Noni one evening as we counted the day’s revenue on the front step.  “I mean, do we really gotta let them touch it?  What if they break off a crystal or something?”  I could finally understand why all the guards at the art museum looked so mean.

“Don’t matter that much,” he said, flat and pure business.  “Chandelier’s got a whole lot of crystals.  If someone breaks something, pop ‘em one.  Here’s your two-sixty.  Not a bad day.  You sleeping out here again tonight?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Fuck,” he said, “you’re getting kind of weird about this chandelier.”

“Gotta guard our property,” I said.  “Our profit.”  I had to speak in his terms.

Noni shrugged.  “G’night, then.”

In the plywood stage I curled my body around the chandelier, pulled the blanket over my shoulders, over my head, gazed at the crystals that shone dark in the twilight.  Except for the passing cars I could’ve been anywhere, even on the smooth polished wooden floor of the studio where I’d hang the chandelier someday.  If I thought hard enough I could smell the oil paints, the turpentine.

“Good night,” I told the chandelier.  “I hope you had a good day.” I reached out to touch the crystals, hear them chatter lightly against each other, and I imagined the chandelier was speaking of great works of art it had known.  Something as beautiful as my chandelier had to have been hung with other beautiful things – Moent’s waterlilies, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night.  The crystals whispered that someday I would paint masterpieces.

Sleep comes quickly when a chandelier is speaking to you, words soothing as rain.  Like sultry archangels, the Marilyns watched over us.

The lady in the purple skirt came a second time when we only had a small gathering of kids, fifteen or so, because summer school had not yet let out for the day.  She parted our customers like Moses at the Red Sea, walked to the front of the crowd where Noni stood.

“I’m back my dears,” she said, thrusting a too-white hand into her totebag.  “Only a week and a half left and we’ll be coming to turn this lot into a lovely garden.”

I glanced at the Marilyns and was sure they were glowering at her.

Noni said, “Lady–”

“If you could,” she said, withdrawing her hand from her tote with a stack of papers, “give these fliers to your mothers.  I’m sure they’ll want to help.”  She shoved papers in Noni’s direction and he took them stupidly, squinted at the fliers as if they were obscene tropical insects, then dropped them on the ground and started to hot-foot it after the do-gooder woman who was already marching away.

“Listen,” he said, his voice taking on that slight edge usually reserved for people of his own height, “this our lot and we don’t want a garden here.”

“You’ll be so happy in August when you have all sort of fresh greens to eat,” she said with steamroller cheer.  “And you’ll like planting the seeds and getting dirty.”

“Lady, we don’t want a garden,” he said.  “Me and my friend cleaned up the lot and we’re using it.  You’re gonna have to find another one.”

“Yes, and you’ll have tomatoes next year,” she said.  “Lovely tomatoes of the sort you could never buy in the store.”

He stopped when they passed the front steps to our building, watched her march down the street until she was at the light, then stomped back to us.

“Fuck that,” he said.  “We’re not going to have any stupid adults taking over our lot.  That’s a load of shit.”

Our customers toed the dirt.

“If we get enough people here, they won’t be able to have their stinking garden,” he said.  “Easy as that.  Next in line,” he said, yanking the dime from Susie Marrichi’s hand.  Because Noni was the sort of kid who could make things come to pass, we believed him, believed our bare and pristine lot could be saved because he said it could.

In the heat of early July, Noni was pulling in an easy five to seven dollars a day.  He hired three guys to canvas farther neighborhoods, paid them twenty cents a day plus subway fare to spread the words about our chandelier.  Our customer base grew until kids were hiking in from three miles away or taking the bus to find us.  And every time the magic seemed to wane, we were greeted with a new miracle that could be attributed to our chandelier.  Testimonials rang out along the sidewalk to keep the dimes rolling.

Freddy Carzino’s kid brother’s kinked finger, broken in a tricycle accident when he was two, straightened in a week after he touched it to the chandelier.

Mimi Papanova, forever the butterball of the fourth grade, began losing weight three days after she kissed the chandelier and said she no longer had a craving for Oreos.

Hector Guilini’s grandfather won a bowling tournament and bought his grandson a new pair of roller skates and a whole box of chocolate bars from the five and dime.

Of course there was an amount of salesmanship supplied by Noni, the soothing words for those who doubted the chandelier’s credibility after two weeks of daily visits with no success.

“Miracles happen on their own time,” he said in a speech I’d heard him muttering the night before on the front steps of our building.  “They happen when they need to happen.  You have to believe they will happen and be ready to receive them.”  It was like Santa Claus, God and karma in a neat little package.

The crowd of kids dispersed by eight or nine, and Noni and I divided up our take for the day, minus the amount we had to pay our ad men and the kids who gave testimonials.  I ran up to the apartment to secure my share of dimes in the peanut butter jar hidden in the bureau drawer with my sweaters.  When I had twenty-five dollars, I decided to save for a bus ticket to go somewhere, although I wasn’t sure where that was.  It wasn’t too early to start looking for places the chandelier and I might go in a few years when I was big.  Maybe Colorado.  It has no castles, but Ma said I had cousins there who helped run a ski lodge.  I liked the idea of Colorado, the idea of mountains, of dragging an easel up some rugged hill and painting all day in cool air.

But my cousins probably didn’t have a chandelier.  And I did.  I hoped the chandelier understood its importance as my personal muse.  I slept with my chandelier even when it rained, which happened a couple times.  I got wet, but in the humid July nights I didn’t get cold at all.  Just had to dry out my blanket over a fence in the morning, shake off the cracking mud, and I was ready for the next night.  I liked being out in the elements with the smell of wet earth and wet pavement.  When I had a studio in the mountains I imagined I would camp out every night in the summer, only I probably wouldn’t take the chandelier with me, so it might not be as fun.  Once the chandelier was suspended from the ceiling of my studio, polished and everything, it probably wouldn’t want to go outside.

Fifty or sixty kids were crowding the lot the day the lady with the violet skirt returned.  Like a tank she forged through the masses of kids to Noni.

“I hope you gave your mothers the fliers, dears,” she said, rummaging in her totebag again.  “The truck will be coming bright and early at nine tomorrow to collect that ugly bit of plywood, and the garden club ladies will be here the day after that.”  She wrinkled her nose at the Marilyns and handed Noni another sheaf of fliers.

“We threw them in the trash.”  Noni dropped the papers on the ground but she paid that no mind.

“You’ll just love the garden club ladies,” she said.  “They’re all very sweet.”

“Lady,” said Noni, “I told you, we don’t want—“

“See you tomorrow, dears,” said the lady, executing an about-face and plowing back through our customers.  I think the kids tried to crowd her, pull at her purse strings, but from where I stood it was hard to tell.  She barreled through the small reaching hands like they belonged to street beggars.  Noni followed her, tried to grab the edge of her skirt, but she must have been walking at too fast a clip for him to catch hold.

“We’re already using the lot,” he said.  “We don’t want a f– garden.”  His debating skills were deteriorating rapidly, but he had not let the word slip.  We waited with communally held breath in the vacant lot, waited until we could no longer hear their negotiations.  Noni trailed her down the sidewalk, finagling as he went.  We watched them for a block and a half until they disappeared, and then watched the spot for five minutes, ten minutes, until Noni reemerged with the verdict.

“Fuck,” he said, hands shoved deep into his jeans.  “Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.”  He kicked the fliers where he had dropped them.  No one dared come near him for fear Noni would lash out and whack them in the knee.  And Noni probably would have, too.  He was not the sort for changing plans he’d already established, and one little kink could set him off.

“She fucking patted my head like I was fucking four years old.”  He kicked the ground, the weeds that had been trampled by many sneakers.

“We could always…” I said from my post, still guarding the chandelier.

“No we fucking couldn’t,” he said.  “Not in a donkey’s fart.”

“It doesn’t look too heavy,” I said.  Noni never just abandoned things.  He demolished them.  Neighbors said he was like his father that way, and since his father was still in Korea we had to take their word for it.

“Fuckin’ A it doesn’t,” said Noni as he began to pace the length of the lot like a crazed preacher.  “It’s heavy as hell and it’d crumble if ya tried to move it.  Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.”

“I think it’s sturdy,” I said, “And there are other lots that…”

“But this is our fucking lot,” he said.  “And our fucking chandelier.  They’re going to take our fucking chandelier, and grow fucking eggplant in its place.”

Noni’s pacing grew closer to the chandelier and me, sweeping across the length of the lot but nearing, nearing slowly.

“And then there’s the magic,” he said, “who’s to say the fucking magic, the fucking miracles, come with us if we go?”  On that last word he stopped in front of me, every muscle rigid.  In a motion smooth as falling water he ripped the broomstick curtain rod from our stage, easy since Carlo had been lazy and attached the pole with just a few daubs of wood glue to make it stick.  Noni flung the flower sheet aside like a horror movie corpse throwing off its shroud.  I tried to stand in front of him, knew I could calm his rage if I could stop the first swing.  I’m sure I heard the Marilyns screaming.  Even though he was one head shorter and ten pounds lighter, Noni elbowed me to the ground as if I were a kid brother he was bullying.

“It’s my damn chandelier!” was all I had time to scream before he took the first swing.  It was a sound like the Big Bang, like all the windows in town breaking at once, like what you would hear if you were in the middle of a tornado and your house burst and crumbled on top of you.  Noni whacked that chandelier like it was a piñata, like it was a rock he was mining for gold, like it was the head of the devil himself, and none of us could leave.  It was too fascinating, too powerful, like watching car wrecks on television.  You wouldn’t have thought that a kid that small could hit something with that much force for so long, but Noni did.  I lunged for his ankles, tried to drag him down, make him stop, but he kicked backwards and got me in the forehead.  I screeched and let go, held my head.  No blood but it hurt like hell.

When he was finished, thirty seconds that seemed much longer or much shorter depending on how you looked at it, he dropped the broom handle, did an about face towards the apartment steps, and meandered home.  A real casual sort of walk, slow and deliberate like he’d just been out for a stroll.  The kids cleared a path for him to the apartment steps and he ascended them, gave a final backwards glance to those of us who were staring from the vacant lot amid chandelier shards, crystals and twisted wire, and closed the door.  For all I know he went and took a nap.

I don’t think I cried.  But I was upset.  Really upset.  I wouldn’t have let those gardeners take my chandelier.  I’d have lugged it up to my bedroom if it came to that.  We would have saved it somehow, because it was beautiful and worth saving.  And even then I knew I would never be able to forgive Noni.  He hadn’t even stopped to take a crystal, a memento, as I did that evening before the long trudge to the apartment steps, anticipating how my bed would feel that night, too cold and too soft.  I couldn’t sleep, rocked back and forth dreaming of the desecrated chandelier.

It was three in the morning when I scavenged for empty shoeboxes my mother horded in the hall closet, piled them in my arms, crept downstairs and through the lobby doors into stillness.  By streetlamp light I scavenged for crystals.

“I came back for you,” I told them, brushing dirt off with the hem of my nightshirt.  I tucked the unbroken ones into my shoeboxes, orderly rows like tin soldiers.  “Told you I’d keep you with me.”  They were surprisingly sturdy and perhaps half of them had remained intact.  “I’m sorry,” I said.  My throat caught and I couldn’t say anything more.

I left the shattered crystals, along with the gold chandelier skeleton and the multiple smirking Marilyns, for the gardeners to find.  They could tend to the remnants, puzzle their meaning, though all of the garden clubs in the world wouldn’t have been able to figure it out.

I hid the crystals under my bed, perhaps seventy-five of them in all, except for one that I slept with under my pillow at night, a sort of good-luck charm.  Or maybe I thought it would ward off bad dreams.  Sometimes I’d take one out and place it on the edge of my sketchpad, try to draw it, but the angles never came out quite right.

Noni and I were never real friends after that, although he gained status as a neighborhood legend among local kids.  Long after we had both moved to different sections of the city, I heard those stories were still circulating although in a slightly revised form.  The chandelier had burgeoned to six feet in diameter, two or three times its original size.  Its magic had prevented an automobile accident, brought a cat back to life, and allowed a small child to have his appendix removed without the use of anesthetics.  When he destroyed the chandelier, Noni ripped it apart with his bare hands.  I was conveniently omitted from the story, which I never minded because I prefer not to be in the limelight.

A week ago I thought I saw Noni on the subway, holding the pole a few seats down from me and reading a copy of the Times.  He was dressed in a blue suit and mauve paisley tie, the sort that didn’t look bad, but that a man would never buy for himself.  I almost didn’t see him, he blended too easily into the subway mural of city businessmen going home.  I was reading a copy of Magritte’s biography, always keep a book in my briefcase since the commute is forty minutes, and I didn’t say anything because it might not have been him.  And because it might have.

The summer after the chandelier, when our community garden was in full bloom, Noni was hawking mammoth cucumbers and overripe tomatoes to the old ladies who sat on benches two blocks over, and the wandering men who smelled of cigars and weak urine.  With my sketchbook under my arm and a crystal in my pocket I stood back and watched.