As promised, here’s a look how the friendship between Elizabeth and Paolo began…

SET UP:  Accompanied by her younger sister Anna, Elizabeth is on the streetcar on the way to her home in East Boston when she sees Paolo. She remembers he is the man who stood by her when the ghost of her husband, a casualty of WWII, came to say goodbye. 

Excerpt from Chapter one of The Passenger ~

The smell of frankfurters from a roadside stand carried in on the still August air, reminding Elizabeth of the five-cent frank she’d shared earlier with her sister. Like most things she ate nowadays, it sat like a rock in the pit of her stomach. 

With a sigh, she leaned forward to see what Anna was working on. The girl always had pencil and paper handy, and Elizabeth envied how her sister could find the beauty in ordinary things. 

Now with adroit, delicate gestures of charcoal, Anna transformed the white paper into a wrinkled, weathered face, unshaven and sad. Yet, the eyes were kind, seeming on the edge of a smile. 

Elizabeth shifted her attention to the seat across the aisle, and her breath caught. Her sister’s subject was the man who stood by her on the beach the day of her dead husband’s visit. The man had kept her company while she dried her tears, but he’d said little. He just continued to stand looking out at the horizon as if also watching for someone to arrive. She’d felt they were kindred spirits in that way and thought of him often though she hadn’t seen him again. 

A steady stream of hot air blew in through the trolley’s open windows and whipped through his hair. The dull gray locks, peppered throughout with streaks of blue black, fluttered in a mess around his head. The man gave several wheezing breaths and mopped his sweaty brow with the back of a black, tattered, coat sleeve. 

Elizabeth gathered her arms close around her chest, fighting the bizarre chill that only seemed to grow colder. As if it gathered from the old man’s body and fed into hers. 

How could that be? 

Her heartbeat quickened as she leaned forward to look at Anna’s drawing again. If the man were dead, her sister wouldn’t be able to see him. 

She bit her lower lip and slumped back against the seat. 

Lord, but how odd. 

Not to mention disconcerting. All the signs were there. Her pensive mood, sitting still was outright painful, and the hairs spiking on her arms and back. All as if this man needed her help to pass from this world to the next. Of course, she’d ignored the dead for so long, letting eleven years pass before lowering her guard and opening herself for one special person. 

She shook her head and roughly rubbed at her arms. It could be she was misinterpreting her neophyte reactions. Surely, she wasn’t feeling this man. 

Still, I should speak to him. After all, he’d been kind to her. Perhaps he didn’t recognize her. She’d changed over the months. Each time she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she saw that her round face had thinned, and her eyes had dulled. She appeared gaunt, as if a ghost peered back at her from behind the glass. 

Not wanting to stare, she glanced above his head to the advertisement for brandy. It reminded her to drink conservatively just as he gave a sputtered, wheezing breath. 

“Excuse me, Sir?” Elizabeth leaned into the aisle toward him. “Are you all right?” 

Turning slowly in his seat, he offered her a weak smile. His face was fatigued with dark shadows beneath each eye. “Sisi,” he answered and exhaled. “I am fine.” 

“Beth, what are you doing?” Anna asked. 

Elizabeth glanced at her sister, inclined her head slightly toward the old man, and whispered, “Speaking to my friend.” 

A few minutes later, the streetcar screeched to a stop. Several passengers exited. The man stood on tenuous legs, then grabbed the seat in front of him, and stumbled forward. 

The poor man. She hated to see him struggling and doubted he would make it far on his own. Elizabeth rose from her seat. 

“Anna, I’m getting off here.” She rushed to aid him and asked, “Do you need help?” 

“That is so kind, Signorina, but I do not want to put you to trouble.” 

“It’s no trouble.” She gently took his elbow. Numbing electricity shot into her fingers, and biting back a gasp, she snatched them away. Easy, Elizabeth. He’s just a sick old man. Nothing to be frightened of.  “I…I would be happy to escort you.” She peeked over her shoulder at Anna who had gathered her belongings and stood waiting to follow behind them. With a deep breath, Elizabeth touched his elbow again. 

Grazie, Bella, grazie,” the man said and patted her hand with his clammy fingers.

©2007 Joie Lesin


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