Books are a uniquely portable magic. ~ Stephen King

Friday, February 19, 2010

Mrs. Folino's Man

Fiction Fridays

A friend approached me a couple weeks ago with a unique proposition. He was working on a song and he had the bones of some lyrics and wanted me to flesh them out. I told him I couldn't write poetry or lyrics and he said, no worries - he didn't want me to write the lyrics, he wanted me to write a story. Loving the idea, I set to work. Over the following three weeks I will present the stories that resulted from that request.

Mrs. Folino's Man

I wrapped the last of the gobs in waxed paper and placed it with the others on a large platter. The house smelled of chocolate and the kitchen was still spattered with the remains of my efforts. This had been my first attempt and I thought I’d done pretty well. I hadn’t actually tasted one yet, but I’m not a saint – I’d licked the beaters when I was done making the filling. It tasted just right. Just like Grandma’s.

I looked around the kitchen and sighed. I was in no hurry to start this clean up job. The Crisco in that filling was going to be a greasy mess. I started tidying up and, when it could be put off no longer I filled the sink with soapy water and started the clean up task in earnest. I gazed out the window, as was my habit when I did the dishes. The snow was coming down pretty hard in huge white flakes. I had to admit, despite myself, that it was pretty. The smoke from the steel mill generally left a sort of gray film over – well – everything – so the pure virgin snow was a lovely alternative. Aesthetically, at least; pragmatically I was less a fan. It wouldn’t be pure for long, that much was certain. Soon it would be the gray heavy slush and dirty mounds from the plows that were so characteristic of winter in Western Pennsylvania. But for now, it was white. For now it was pure. For now it was lovely.

As I gazed out the window, I caught a glimpse of my elderly neighbor lady making her way to her mailbox. She was wielding a snow shovel that looked like it weighed as much as she did. She was making no attempt to shovel the whole driveway; she was just trying to clear a path. She looked weary but resigned in her old cloth coat with a scarf double wrapped around her head and her polyester pants tucked into what looked like her husband’s boots. I wondered if she’d be offended or relieved if I offered to help. I hadn’t even begun to clear my own driveway yet, but I figured it was inevitable. I caught a glimpse of the batch of fresh gobs on the table and was struck by an inspiration. I would head over to offer her some gobs, then I’d casually take over the shoveling while she took them into the house. I found a small Tupperware container and put four gobs in it before donning my parka and an old ski hat. It bore a Steelers logo, as did almost all of the winter gear in the cardboard box in my closet. I pulled on some weatherproof gloves – black and gold, of course – and tied my hood tight. I picked up the Tupperware and braced myself for the cold.

I waved at her with my gloved hand and made my way carefully across my snow covered yard. My boots were warm, but this snow came higher on my calves than they did. If the snow made its way over the boots, any chance of maintaining warm dry feet was shot.

“Mrs. Folino!” I hailed. She looked up from her task and waved back at me. She leaned on her shovel as she watched me pick my way through the snow.

“Careful, dear!” she said, as I nearly lost my balance when the terrain under the snow changed from my lawn to her driveway. I smiled at her and extended the Tupperware container.

“I made gobs today, Mrs. Folino! My first attempt! I was hoping you and Mr. Folino would try one and let me know what you think.”

“Why thank you, dear! Let me just…”

“Here.” I said, gently removing the shovel from her hand and replacing it with the treats. “You take these in – I’ll finish this up and bring your mail in.”

“That’s very sweet of you, dear. Will you join me for a cup of coffee and a gob?”

“That’s a deal.”

“I’ll put the coffee on.”

I finished shoveling her path to the mailbox quickly. I was glad to be helping her, but sorry that her path as well as my footprints had already marred the purifying blanket the snow was providing. Oh well. It couldn’t be helped. I removed the mail from her old silver mailbox and made my way back to her house. I removed my right glove so that my knock would be heard. Nothing so new-fangled and fancy as a doorbell for the Folino’s.

There was a carpet remnant by the door, and Mrs. Folino indicated that that was where I should leave my snow-covered boots. I hung my coat on a wooden coat rack near the door and pushed my gloves into one sleeve and my hat into the other. My hostess led me into her kitchen, which was truly the hub of her home. She pointed at a chair – silver with a red vinyl seat – and advised me to “make yourself t’home.”

I did just that. It was easy to feel comfortable here – it felt a lot like my own grandma’s kitchen. She had the gobs I’d brought set out on the table on what I felt sure was her best china; her company dishes. She had set out two smaller matching plates for us as well as a sugar bowl and a small pitcher of milk. She brought two cups of coffee to the table in the tea cups from the same set and she placed one before me as she sat down across the table. She smiled at me and we both relaxed as we went about adding sugar and milk to our delicate cups.

“Your china is lovely.”

“Oh, it’s old.” She said, feigning modesty but clearly proud. “Frank’s aunt gave us that as a wedding gift – Lord, all those years ago…” her voice and her eyes drifted off for a moment. In that moment something shifted in her visage. I caught a brief glimpse of the young girl she’d been before the world got its hold on her. It was lovely.

“How is Mr. Folino?” I asked when her face had morphed back into its normal state, leaving the dreamy young girl behind.

“Oh, well, you know. He’s not been doing so well presently.”

“I’m sorry! Is there anything I can do?”

“Oh, don’t you worry yourself about it. Is your coffee ok?”

“Oh! Yes, it’s perfect. Thank you! Just what I needed to warm me up on such a cold day.”

“Did you want a drop of something stronger in it? To take the chill off?”

“Oh no! No thank you, not today.”

“Frank always liked a drop of something to warm him up.”

“Now tell me, Mrs. Folino, if I’m not prying, just what exactly is going on with that handsome husband of yours?”

“Oh.” She sighed, “He’s been getting the dialysis up to three times a week lately. It leaves him feeling awful poorly and to be honest with you, we just don’t see much improvement. It’s the only option we have, though. What else are we gonna do?” She sighed again and took a long sip from her cup.

I reached across the table and patted her free hand. I wished I could offer more comfort, but a lump was forming in my throat and it was hard to find words that would make their way out around it. Just then we were interrupted by a low moan from an adjoining room.

“Excuse me, dear”, she said, extracting her hand from under mine and scooting off in the direction of the moan with more speed and agility than I thought she would have been capable of. I realized in a moment of clarity as pure as the snow that she was not rushing off to tend to my neighbor, old Mr. Folino. She was rushing off to tend to her man. The difference was both subtle and glaring.

I had little more than a passing relationship with the Folino’s. We were friendly enough, but we weren’t what you’d call social. They were, after all, older than my grandparents. I didn’t figure there was much common ground. Sitting here with Mrs. Folino today – me showing off my baking and her showing off her fine china – I wondered if I might have been wrong about that. Maybe there was more common ground than I knew.

She returned to the table and shook her head. “He was uncomfortable. It was time for his pills. I just stayed and rubbed his temple till he went off again.” She said, her gaze looking right past me, “Bless his heart,” she added.

“Now Frank was already retired when you moved in, wasn’t he?” She wrinkled her brow, obviously trying to recollect when exactly I’d entered the picture.

“Oh yes, I think so. He worked at the mill, right?”

“Sure. Retired before the big lay offs started. Oh, he was a good worker, Frank was. Loved his job, too.” Her eyes softened, and in them I saw a young Mr. Folino, heading to the steel mill with a silver lunch bucket in his hand.

I nodded and took her hand again, imploring her to continue.

“Did you know" – she started with an enthusiasm she hadn’t demonstrated up to this point, “that after he retired they still used his stamp from time to time because customers would specifically request Frank Folino’s steel?”

I had heard my own grandparents talk about the practice of stamping. Each foreman stamped his own work by way of a physical seal that was cast in the finished steel. I’d never heard of anyone’s seal being used once they’d left the plant, so I figured this must have been quite an honor indeed. Mrs. Folino’s face reflected the truth of that assumption.


“Cool.” She responded without a trace of irony. “Oh yes, all the fellas at the mill loved Frank. Hated to see him go. ‘Course he’d still see them down t’the beer garden from time to time. Before…” her gaze drifted off in the direction of the bedroom where Mr. Folino was currently resting. I patted her hand. It was a small gesture, but she seemed to appreciate it. She took a deep breath and continued.

“When’s the last you saw him?”

I tried to remember. As my relationship with them up until this very day had been one of nodding acquaintance, it was difficult to pinpoint. “It’s been a while, I guess.”

She nodded. “Ever since his diagnosis, he’s been fading fast. He’s skinny now – so skinny you might not recognize him.” Mr. Folino had never been a heavy man, but he’d been robust. It was difficult to imagine him wasting away in a sick bed.

Mrs. Folino filled the rest of my afternoon with tales of her life with Frank. She told me about their courtship and about her struggles as a young bride. She talked about raising their children, then watching their children move away. She told stories that made me laugh and stories that made me cry. While the stories were all different, one thread remained the same: these were stories of love.

“He never cared much for the winter.” She said, looking out the window at the still falling snow. “I don’t reckon there’s many that do. Always said, ‘if I can make it through February, I can make it through the year.’ How ‘bout that? ‘if I can make it through February, I can make it through the year’.”

I thought about the dark moods that plagued me in the cold, short winter days and I thought I could see the wisdom in that. Just get through February – that’s the hard part – if you can get through that, the rest is easy.

Daylight was beginning to fade when Mrs. Folino’s stories were interrupted once again by Mr. Folino’s low moan. As she jumped up to tend to him, I got up as well. “It’s getting late, I should really be going.”

“Oh, well, if you must, then,” she said, glancing anxiously in the direction of her husband’s room. “Thank you so much for stopping by – I hope I didn’t bore you too much with all my old stories. Here I’ve wasted your whole day. Lord, I do go on.”

I did something then I hadn’t really intended to. It didn’t fit with our relationship up until that day, but it suddenly felt so organic now. I threw my arms around her in a quick embrace. “I should be thanking you! I had a lovely afternoon.”

She invited me to come back anytime as she ran off to tend to her husband and I once again donned my snow gear. The cold air hit my face like a slap as I left the literal and figurative warmth of their house – their home.

A few days later, I heard the ambulance stop in front of their house before I saw it. I ran to my window in time to see the squad putting Mr. Fulino into the ambulance on a gurney. Mrs. Folino followed closely behind, wringing her hands. As predicted, the snow was piled in big ugly gray heaps on the side of the road. Any beauty that may have once been evident in the winter’s snow was long gone. The sky was as gray as the snow beneath it.

It was the last week of February.


  1. I pictured my grandmother the whole time I was reading this.

  2. Good work, T. You're just in the zone, man.

  3. Visiting from WOW's Writer's Forum. I know I've already told you how much I love this piece (though it must have been in an email, since I don't see my comment here). I know this isn't your favorite, but I just love Mrs. Folino. And I love her "love story".


  4. That's a very sweet story... and such an ambiguous ending, because it's really not clear whether he's going to survive February or not.

    Visiting from WOW.

  5. This sounds like it could have happened in any Pittsburgh-area neighborhood as late as the 80s.

    All that was missing was a 'yinz'

    Made me miss the place...but not the snow!