Ronnie had been relegated to the service of a pack mule. That is to say, he was doing not much more than carrying numerous shopping bags for Cassandra and following her around Little Italy while she shopped. We can call it shopping what she was doing, but it was more like a re-discovery of sorts.
“Ronnie, I just don’t get it,” Cassandra said, looking back at the last shop they had just exited.
“What don’t you get?” he asked, as he popped another Bella di Cerignola olive into his mouth. “Did you forget something? You couldn’t possibly!”
“No, not that. You know, I’ve never been here before today,” she said, frowning slightly. “At least I don’t think so, but…it’s so weird. This feels like home, like this is where I belong…in Little Italy.”
Ronnie grinned. “Not too weird,” he said. “You were talking to that old guy in the store as if you’d known him all your life.”
“He was so nice and he said I looked very familiar,” she said. “I wish I could live here, or at least work at one of these shops, but they all seem to be family run establishments.”
“Never know until you ask,” he said.
“Oh! Did I tell you what the woman in the deli said?” Cassandra said.
“That deli…the prosciutto was so good!” he moaned remembering the slice of ham the lady handed him to tempt him. He savored it the entire time Cassandra had spoken to her in Italian. He was so glad she bought several pounds of the delicious stuff and that she didn’t mind sharing.
“I had no idea what you were talking about with her, but it must have been good. The lady seemed very excited…probably cuz you bought almost everything she had.”
“She told me she knew my mother! I mean…my grandmother,” she said. “She said they lived on…uh…somewhere near here. Delancey Street or something. Does that seem right?”
“Sure, it’s not too far from here and back in the day…yeah sure. It’s possible,” he said.
“Could we go there?” she asked.
“Um, we could but, they were living there when they were much younger, right? And things were very different then,” he said. “Probably why they moved to Queens in the first place. Lots of people did.”
“How do you know that? You weren’t here then either,” she said.
“No, but my grandmother used to tell me all sorts of stories about how different things were when she was a kid, how whole neighborhoods changed over the decades,” he explained.
“Oh,” she said pensively. “But that’s a clue, isn’t it? I should tell your Uncle Tommy, right?”
Ronnie shrugged. “I guess… it can’t hurt. But you already know about your dad’s side of the family and he’s looking for your mother.”
“Oh, yeah. What was I thinking? I just got excited cuz nobody ever told me anything and now I discover this from a total stranger!” she grumbled. “It’s so frustrating!”
They walked down the block and entered another shop which caught Cassandra’s eye, this one exclusively selling imported olive oil and vinegar. Who knew there were so many kinds? Ronnie, as usual, hung back and watched Cassandra brightly greet the shop owner and converse almost entirely in Italian. This was the happiest he’d seen Cassandra since they left Uncle Tommy and he was glad of it. Cassandra came out of the meeting looking rather dejected even though Tommy was optimistic about being able to find her mother.
“But what if you find her and she doesn’t want to meet me?” Cassandra anxiously asked.
Tommy shook his head. “We’ll worry about that when we find her, okay?” he said. “First we gotta find her!”
Now it seemed to Ronnie she didn’t have a care in the world. He very much liked that.
“Omigosh, Ronnie! Try this,” she said stuffing an herbed oil-soaked piece of crusty bread into his mouth. “Isn’t that fantastic?”
“It’s a winner!” he said licking his lips. He watched in amazement as she bought four different bottles of oil and a couple of flavored vinegars. As they left the shop he asked, “Are you sure you’re gonna use all of this stuff?”
“I’m planning on cooking up a storm!” she said gleefully. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“Won’t catch me complaining,” he said. They walked for a little while then he added, “Well, I hate to say it, cuz you were having so much fun, but this is pretty much the end of Little Italy.”
She gaped at him. “Seriously? They weren’t kidding when they called it little.”
He laughed. “I thought it was big enough. We’ve walked for hours,” he said. “It used to be bigger, according to my grandma, but people moved away and Chinatown kinda took over. Things always change, not always for the better.”
“So…this is Chinatown now?” Cassandra said, looking for Chinese lanterns, or characters written on doors or windows. Something to indicate it was indeed the famous Chinatown. “Sure doesn’t look like it.”
“They kinda melt together so you can’t tell when one starts and the other ends, but yeah,” he said. “Want some dim sum?”
She giggled. “Haven’t you had enough to eat yet? You’ve eaten something in every shop we went in, plus we had lunch at that awesome restaurant. That Stromboli was huge and you had like five cannolis!”
He shook his head. “Never enough!” he said. “Hey, I know one place you might like. Come on, it’s not too far.”
They turned the corner and Cassandra saw it instantly, nestled between an upholstery shop and a dollar store masquerading at an old-fashioned five-and-dime. The large picture window read in a curly script lettering Madame Ruelenska Apothacary,
Cassandra peered in, but she couldn’t see past the dark burgundy colored curtains. “Omigosh…a real apothecary,” she said in a reverent whisper.
“Yup, I used to call it the Witch Store when I was a kid, but Grandma Heidi got mad at me for calling Madame Ruelenska a witch. Pretty sure she is. Then I read Harry Potter and I knew she was cuz she looked just like Professor Trelawney!” he said, holding the door open for Cassandra who couldn’t help but laugh. “Watch where you’re going, okay? Kinda hard to not bump into stuff in there.”
Ronnie wasn’t kidding. It was very dark inside after being out in the bright sun all day. After their eyes adjusted, they could see it was dimly lit by wonderfully scented candles, and it was tightly packed with several small tables stacked with small cheese cloth bags full of exotic herbs, clay crocks holding mysterious, twisted twigs and stems, and baskets containing dried bits and pieces of sundry plant material.
The walls were covered with shelves holding jars of leaves, roots and flowers some suspended in liquid, others dry and whole while others were either crumbled or ground to a fine, powdered form. There were essential oils in tiny amber bottles, candles in all sizes, shapes and scents, soaps, bath salts, shower gels, shampoos, creams and lotions in an endless variety of herbal formulas. One section had what at first looked like tubs of many flavors of colorful candy, but on closer examination they were honey and herb lozenges for all manner of ailments.
Over a bowl of dull yellow candies a sign read, Got a sore throat? Try this one. Over another bowl of light pink ones the sign read Feeling dizzy or nauseous? Try this one.
Cassandra loved it! She wanted at least one of each and every single thing in the whole store. She wandered around the shop in awe until she came to a half hidden alcove which had large barrels topped with deep serving dishes of dried herbs. Tiny porcelain scoops were attached by hemp twine to each bowl with little paper bags sitting beside each dish for mixing your own herb blends.
“Oh, how cool is this place!” Cassandra said.
“Simon loves it,” Ronnie said, bending forward to smell a tray of orange and yellow petals labeled Calendula. “Hey, isn’t that Violet’s cat’s name?”
“Yeah, she told me she named her Calendula for the orange color of her fur,” Cassandra said. “This flower is supposed to be used in making lip balms and soothing salves and ointments, good for burns and cuts.”
“That is correct.”
They both jumped and spun around at the unexpected, albeit soft, voice seemingly coming out of nowhere.
“Sorry to startle you,” the woman said smiling at them. “It’s not often I get young people in here, let alone those who know anything about medicinal herbs.”
“Oh, um…hi,” Ronnie said, staring at the very pretty lady who in his estimation didn’t look anything like a witch. She certainly didn’t look like creepy Madame Ruelenska in her flowing, long black dresses and endless bangles and beads and those piercing beady eyes which always seemed to be accusing you of some foul act you had not done yet.
In contrast, this woman had large, soft brown eyes, dark hair braided loosely so that escaping curls formed an endearing halo around her ever-smiling, olive-toned, oval face. She was slightly curvy, but didn’t stand very tall, a few inches taller than Cassandra, and she presently wore bright pink leggings under a gauzy floral print skirt, which swirled around her knees as she moved, with a pale pink cotton t-shirt topped with a rose colored cardie. To finish the ensemble, she wore bright red cowboy boots. Nope, not the look of a witch.
“I don’t know anything about this stuff,” Ronnie continued. “I’m just looking around, but Cassie knows lots.”
“Not lots, Ronnie,” Cassandra said. “Just a tiny bit, but I’d love to learn more.” She suddenly gasped and looked past the woman into the back room from which the woman came. It was brightly lit and appeared to be a cross between a florist shop and a greenhouse. It was full to bursting with live plants growing hydroponically along PVC piping held in place by wire onto a wood frame.
“Oh, you like my garden?” The woman said with a little laugh. “A friend of mine built it for me because he knows I like cooking with fresh herbs and I find leafy greens so easy to grow under grow lights. I don’t even miss the sun.”
“That is seriously awesome!” Ronnie said. “Can you really grow all that stuff without any sun?”
“Apparently,” the woman said. “Got no windows back there and even if I did, the building next door would obscure any direct rays.”
“Wow, just amazing,” Ronnie said.
“Sure is,” Cassandra said, staring all around her. “You must love working for Madame Ruelenska. I sure would. I could learn so much from her.”
The woman smiled. “Must be my lucky day. That is, if you are serious.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Cassandra said, unable to pull her eyes away from the fascinating mortar and pestle sets —some made of white and pink marble, others of dark grey speckled granite, and an exquisite green set that looked like it might be made of Jade. There even were a few made of a rustic reddish brown wood-- all in varying sizes sitting on shelves behind the counter.
“I was just about to put a sign on my window,” she said walking behind the counter and taking up a piece of cardboard on which was hand written HELP WANTED INQUIRE WITHIN.
Ronnie and Cassandra exchanged astonished looks.
“You did say you wanted a job, Cassie,” he said grinning. “Your wish just came true.”
Cassandra could merely stare at the sign. It would be too good to be true.