SHORT STORY CONTEST
CECILIO BREAKS THE LAW
by Mary E. Nelson
Cecilio turned up his windshield wipers and thought about the old adage, “It only rains in Rome when clouds have reason to weep,” then chuckled, telling himself it wasn’t a cab driver who thought that one up. At least he had no reason to weep, as today brought lucky pellets of water and swelling clusters of stranded pedestrians who hailed him one after another, spinning his taxi meter into solid profit.
He had argued with Magdalena this morning as she warned him that neglecting to fix the muffler and not renewing his license last week was asking for trouble. But he was feeling better from his bout of flu now, and when he woke to bruised clouds gathering above the city he knew that many people would need cabs; this one day alone could make up a week’s loss.
Now from his aging vehicle with the shield-shaped logo on the door, he saw yet another group huddled together in the loading zone by the St. Lorenzo Hotel, ready to vie with a vengeance for the next taxi.
Then suddenly he saw her.
A young girl stood alone on the corner, still a block from the taxi zone. He wasn’t sure if he should slow, stop, or go on.
She fumbled with a bundle held in the crook of her arm, but when she looked up she waved to him and he pulled to the curb. She dashed over, opened the back door and ducked in.
When she pulled the door shut, a miniscule little cackle from the bundle told him that the baby was small—much too small to be out in the rain.
“Where to, Signora?”
“I only need to go a short distance. And it is Signorina,” she added defiantly.
“Well, Signorina,” he replied, “Your marital status, or lack of it, makes no difference to me. So where to?”
Before she answered, tiny little whimpers increased into full-blown demands and in the mirror he saw the girl reach in her handbag and bring out a bottle.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked again with a sigh.
“Uh…to the convent. Near St. John Leonardi hospital.”
“The one on Via Flores?”
“I guess so. You’re the driver so you should know where it is.”
“Ah, the young,” he said to himself. “But their money is as good as anybody else’s.”
Cecilio wove past the loading zone of the hotel and then accelerated to close the space between him and a car ahead. It was going slower and slower, and his shouts of “Idiot!” only echoed in the confines of the taxi. As he swung past the car he leaned on the horn but the driver continued scanning a map in his hand and took no notice.
Then Cecilio thought of the tiny passenger in the back. He must remember that more caution was called for. As he glanced in the rearview mirror he saw that the girl looked out the window anxiously, or was at least trying to. The glass was as clouded as her face but she could see enough to know that a pedestrian was trying to hail him.
She called up through the partition. “No! I don’t want to share with anyone.”
“I wasn’t going to stop. Let me do the driving…please.”
Before he got very far a Vespa pulled from the curb; the driver wore no helmet and paid little attention to the slick street. When he skidded a few feet toward the cab they both slammed on the brakes. Cecilio rolled down the window intending to send forth a colorful protest but the Vespa driver beat him to it with an obscene gesture, started up the motor again and sped on.
The passenger said nothing and neither did Cecilio. He glanced back once more and saw that she still fussed with the blanket, then brought one hand to her face and pressed it hard against her mouth.
He pushed back the glass partition.
“Signorina, are you ill?”
She answered impatiently that she was all right.
A few minutes later, as they pulled in front of the convent, the girl didn’t wait for Cecilio to open the door for her.
“I’ll be right back,” she told him. “Wait here.”
She pulled the blanket over the sleeping infant’s face and stepped out into the rain.
He rolled down the window and called after her. “It looks as if they’re locked up for the night. Do you want me to come with you until you find out?”
She yelled back and he thought he detected a little panic in her voice. “No, no. I told you to wait where you are.”
Her shout disturbed the infant, but as the girl tore across the sidewalk and down the wide flagstones the little cries faded, muffled by the blanket that protected it from the rain.
Cecilio didn’t want to watch from the inside of the cab because he’d have to roll down the window and his new seat covers would get wet. He pulled his yellow rain jacket tighter and stepped outside to watch her hurry for the convent entrance.
Just before she reached it his eyes fell on a black metal box attached to the big wrought iron gate…and at that moment the full impact of what was taking place hit him.
Despite the rain it was not a cold evening but chills pervaded his entire body.
He stood rigid, every nerve in combat with what was about to take place.
“Oh, no! Not that!” he said aloud.
He had brought her to a designated place where babies could be left in a small, insulated cradle covered with metal protection. Someone inside the convent would hear the triggered alarm and remove the infant. Complete privacy. No questions. No prosecution. Just a human life left in a box for government custody.
Cecilio couldn’t move, couldn’t cry out to her, could do nothing but watch her lift the top, place the pink bundle inside and close the ventilated lid. It took only seconds and she was dashing his way again.
He looked at her face as he opened the taxi door for her. She seemed to have an eerie calm about her as she told him to go back to the same corner where he had picked her up.
Cecilio drove on as directed, keeping open the partition between them and thinking how the quiet in the cab suddenly seemed out of place. After what just happened one would expect thunder, lightning, or at least an increase in the intensity of rain. But it was falling the same way—relentless and gentle in the rhythm of the windshield wipers and an occasional sound of a horn.
As they passed the coffee house where all of the umbrellas were folded down, he heard her emotion gradually break free in the back of the cab. First, only little snivels, soft and subdued, and then a gradual crescendo into wracking sobs.
It was not his place to deal with her and he had no idea how he could. But the combination of rain pelting the windshield in front of him and distraught cries coming from the back seat compelled him to pull curbside.
He reached for a thermos on the seat beside him.
“Signorina, would you like a little espresso?”
She lifted a hand in protest and motioned for him to drive on.
“I’ll be all right. My mind was made up.”
“But even when I first picked you up I could see that you were distraught. If you feel now that…that you made a mistake, I can drive you back.”
“Go back? Oh, no…the alarm must have already sounded…and…”
“But it will take a few minutes for the sisters to respond. Maybe I could get you back in time.”
He knew he was treading where he had no right. The passenger’s stated destination should be his only concern. He watched her fish a tissue from her bag with a trembling hand, then wipe her wet cheeks.
Finally, in a weak, unsure whisper she said, “I…I’m so confused…but if you want to return…”
“No. The decision is not mine. I must hear it from you.”
After her weak nod he pulled out into the street and made a U turn.
The drive back was mayhem, both because of traffic and the thoughts that hammered through Cecilio’s mind. Should he have interfered? The baby was probably already removed from the box, which would create more strife for the young mother. If he kept speeding like this he would surely be pulled over. Still, he did not let up on the accelerator but swung around a delivery truck and honked a warning to a Vespa about to pull from the curb.
He heard nothing more from the back seat. She was probably trying to grip onto something while being flung about.
He came to a screeching stop by the front gates of the convent again. At last the rain began to subside. As before, there was no sign of anyone about. The girl stepped out of the cab and before crossing the flagstones, she asked Cecilio to wait again. She might need his help this time, she said.
He squinted into the short distance, and his heart sank. Even from where he stood he could see that the lid was back, waiting for the next occupant.
When she reached it, she clutched the gate and her fragile arms began to give the wrought iron barrier violent shakes. Then she had only enough energy left to cling to it in desperation.
Cecilio started to go forward toward her, then hesitated.
A nun appeared from the inside, unlocked the gate and went over to the girl. He had no idea what was said but his passenger suddenly looked toward him again, and ran back to his side.
“They can’t let me have her. Not yet. The sister says that once the baby is removed from the box no one can just appear and claim to be the mother. I’ll have to prove it.”
“But that will be easy!” Cecilio answered. “I’ll tell them I picked you and the child up and—”
“I already told her that,” she interrupted. “But we could be working together for all they know because…because she explained that there are so many terrible things going on with children now. It sounds crazy but I have to go through a whole legal procedure. Hospital papers…DNA testing…all of it.”
He put a hand on her shoulder. “You’ll get her back,” he said.
She stared at him a moment and her voice was steady now.
“It’s good, I think. I mean that they wouldn’t let my baby go without knowing for certain that I’m her mother.”
Her delicate lips curved upward and she placed an instinctive kiss on his cheek.
“I must go. I’m spending the night here,” she told him. “But my daughter will be taken to the hospital so I won’t be able to see her again until it’s all settled.”
He looked over her shoulder at the entrance where drenched flagstones took on a yellow cast from the lights shining above. The nun was waiting inside the gate. Cecilio thought it ironic that as the girl’s tears abated, he had to curb his own. All he could bring himself to say was that her purse was in the back seat.
When he gave it to her, she opened it but he would hear of no money. They simply embraced silently and she turned to go back to the waiting nun.
Then all at once she stopped and called back. “If I need to get in touch, who—”
“Cecilio. Cecilio Sagotti,” he said, running up to with her with his card.
“Cecilio…” she repeated.
It occurred to him as the girl disappeared behind the gate that she forgot, or perhaps purposely did not give him her own. Even so, he told himself, it was not her name that mattered. Only her decision.
They say that human memory cannot go farther back than two years of age.
Driving through the last rivulets of rain, Cecilio knew this was not true. All the time tonight that he had been driving illegally, speeding through the rain and getting involved with a passenger’s business, he had vividly felt the knitted softness of another blanket. A plastic bottle positioned upright against a baby’s neck. The sense of black metal walls surrounding him, tiny hands flailing while his infant voice had cried out for rescue. Cried out, and then stopped when he was gently lifted into a life provided by the generosity of strangers.
A good life, too—Magdalena and the children had seen to that, and yet he had carried a burden of resentment all these years. Tonight, for the first time he thought he understood the agony of his own mother when she had placed him in the metal box.
Maybe that’s why the rain has stopped at last, he told himself. All he could do was smile now, thinking that he, the new mother and the clouds had no more reason to weep. Not even when smoke poured from the tailpipe and a siren sounded behind him.
After journalism and creative writing classes in college Mary Nelson continued to turn out poetry and short stories while raising a family. Then in 2000 she took a hiatus from those genres to write and publish two historical novels under a pen name. Recently she decided to return to short stories and tested the waters by entering the Gemini 2011 contest. Being among the finalists has convinced her that the muse is still active.