That morning, I woke up to Uncle Vinny shouting. He was on the avenue, under my window, in front of the new store. "I'm not giving you nothing," he kept saying. I ran to the window, but the yelling had stopped. The Pork Store's gates were down. I saw Uncle Vinny heading east, toward Woodhaven Boulevard, and then he was gone. All that remained were the splintered shadows cast by the J train's tracks. Even in the brightest daylight, the El obscured the street.
In the kitchen, waiting for breakfast, Vinny's voice was still in my head. Mamma put two slices of buttered toast in front of me and insisted I dreamed it. She swept aside the long strands of hair that fell across her face and put the final touches on Pop's lunch. "Who would want to take anything from your uncle?" she said, more to herself than me. A wrinkle appeared above her thinly groomed eyebrows as she told me to, "Hurry up and eat. It's gonna be a long day."
Pop had just come out from the bathroom. "Tell me about it," he said. He was already dressed in his paint splattered pants and shirt. He took the small cup of espresso Mamma set on the table for him and knocked it back like a shot. "Your brother can't open for business like a regular person? It has to be uno spectacolo?"
Mamma held out a paper sack filled with food and Pop took it. "Don't start," she said, sighing. "What time will you be home?"
Pop lit a cigarette and stared at her. "When the work is finished," he said, exhaling. Mamma opened her mouth to speak, but Pop cut her off. "Let me go slave in peace."
I waited for him to close in on Mamma and then come over to me, like he usually did—I loved hugging Pop goodbye, the way the paint splatter rose up under my fingers like Braille—but he made his way toward the door, instead.
"Pop?" I said as he twisted the doorknob. "Did you hear Uncle Vinny on the avenue this morning?"
I could feel Mamma's eyes on me. The ash of my father's cigarette fell to the floor as he turned to answer. "This morning?" Pop said. "Every morning. Every day. Every god-damn night for the last twenty years. Your uncle's a cricket. His lips are always rubbing together."
I laughed and Mamma glared at me.
"You see?" she said to Pop. "You see what's happening? You're teaching him disrespect."
Pop left without pulling the door shut and clomped down the hallway stairs, each of his steps a gun shot. Mamma locked the door behind him, and took a long breath. Aia came out from her bedroom rubbing her eyes. "Look after your sister," Mamma said, "and stay out of my way." It was barely seven a.m.
Not long after that, Mamma's six sisters began filtering in. They all crammed into the narrow kitchen—their movements deft and graceful—and started in on the food for the party. I did my best to follow Mamma's instructions. I did everything short of holding Aia down on the couch when she got bored of watching television and coloring and playing with her Legos.
Early in the afternoon, Uncle Vinny banged on our door. When I opened it he had a toothy smile stretched across his mug—all his facial features seemed frozen. He picked me up, kissed me on both cheeks, and set me down. I searched his face for a hint of what happened that morning. I wondered if he was a spy or an undercover agent, someone whose identity it was my family's duty to protect. "Jeckie, baby," he said. He was my godfather, the one who gave me my American name. "Today's a big day for la famiglia."
Vinny's friend Argento and his father-in-law Santino waited quietly in the doorway. I was so distracted I nearly shut the door on Santino's face. "If I'm not welcome just say so," Santino joked.
Santino was the most direct cause for our being in the states. He'd met Uncle Vinny and Pop when they first visited New York in '73. My father and uncle were inseparable then, had been since childhood when they worked at the same mercato—Pop selling watered down coffee to vendors, Vinny hawking dried sausage links and cow hearts from his father's butcher shop. Santino found each of them work in the U.S. He allowed Uncle Vinny to hook up with Aunt Lucy, though she was almost ten years younger than him. It wasn't long after that Uncle Vinny convinced his whole family to leave Napoli and move across the Atlantic. A move Pop's family wanted no part of. Pop's father had been a prisoner of war, and since returning to Napoli in the late forties had refused ever to set foot outside of it.
"Andiamo! Andiamo!" Uncle Vinny yelled. "I need everything done in time." He snapped his fingers, then put them into a tray of baked ziti that had been set out on the table to cool.
Mamma slapped his hand. "What are you, crazy?" She was in the middle of shaping a rice ball. Her apron was stained with tomato sauce. "You got nowhere better to be?"
"Just a taste," Uncle Vinny said, grinning as he licked his fingers. "I have to make sure you don't poison any of my future customers."
Mamma suppressed a laugh as she wiped her hands and untied her apron. She told one of her sisters to make coffee. Argento and Santino protested, but Mamma insisted they sit. She set out a panettone she had made and joined them. It was the only time that day the women stopped cooking.
"Doria," Argento said, biting into his slice of cake. "This is delicious. You can work for me, anytime." Argento managed the only restaurant my family ever ate at—a small Italian place they considered authentic. He wore gold pinky rings and had the annoying habit of poking my belly and asking But what do you eat to get this fat? He took another bite and smacked his lips. He looked up at Mamma, waved his finger, and winked. "Your husband's a lucky man," he said.
The grand-opening started with the sign-raising at eight o'clock. Mamma dressed Aia in a pleated navy skirt and a ruffled pink blouse. She combed my brown hair and made me wear a suit. "Sit still on the couch," she told us. "Don't wrinkle your clothes." While my sister and I watched television, she disappeared into her bedroom to get ready. Pop was in the shower.
"Mamma, you look like a movie star," I told her when she came out. She had styled her straight black hair, and was wearing shiny earrings, a necklace and two thick bracelets. She even put on make-up: blue eye shadow to match her dress, red lipstick.
"Who's getting married?" Pop wanted to know. He was still wet from his shower, his hair towel-dried and wild. He stood in his ratty brown bathrobe fingering the dark suit Mamma had laid out across a chair for him. "Did somebody die?" Not that he wanted an answer. He moved past us shaking his head, mumbling.
As we exited the apartment, Mamma grabbed Aia and me by the hand. Again, I thought of Vinny. If he was a spy, who would he be working for?
Mamma's voice dragged me back. "Don't eat too much," she said. "And don't go near the boulevard or across the street, for any reason."
As we headed down the stairs, Pop walked a few steps behind us. He tapped his keys against the chipped banister, while whistling the tune to a song I loved—a Napolitan folk song. He'd decided on blue jeans and a gray mock-neck. I could hear the whirr of the denim as he descended methodically. Twice I looked back, and each time Mamma jerked me forward. I couldn't walk fast enough for her. You would have thought Pop was a disease she didn't want me to catch.
Out on Jamaica Avenue we were immediately absorbed by the crowd, which extended past the front of the Pork Store to the neighboring bakery. The night was cool and crisp, though the heat from so many bodies made the air around us clammy. I heard Uncle Vinny's voice, but I couldn't see him. There were too many faces, and the elevated train platform, which ran the length of the avenue, blocked most of the streetlamps' light; the tracks cast long shadows that cut everything into strips.
Behind us, I heard Pop say, "What's going on? Is the pope here? Is he giving a speech?"
Several people laughed, but Mamma's face soured; she rolled her eyes and muttered. I turned again to find Pop, only to watch him vanish—sucked into a pocket of men and women I'd never seen before. I clung to the sight of his parted brown hair—speckled with white flecks of paint that never washed out completely—until it was indiscernible. A Brooklyn bound J train sped by and what light there was flickered. The ground vibrated and people's voices grew louder. "Doria!" Uncle Vinny shouted, and Mamma, hearing her name, pulled my sister and me along until her brother appeared, smiling. He wore a white suit with a black satin shirt, the collar wide and pointy and opened to expose a tuft of chest hair. A thick gold chain hung from his neck. He was standing alongside the rest of his and Mamma's family. They'd all gathered by the glass double-doors. Large chunks of provolone and long bundles of dried sausage hung on display in the window. My uncles wore dark suits and each of my aunts wore a navy blue skirt with some variation of a pale blue blouse. Their lips were glossy and pink. I kissed my grandparents hello and shuffled off to the side with my cousin, Lala.
While we stood there, a policeman walked by and patted Uncle Vinny on the shoulder. "Everything alright, boss?" he asked.
Was Uncle Vinny an undercover cop? Did this guy know something? "Everything's fantastic," Uncle Vinny said, in a voice that carried up above the buildings. Nothing my uncle did seemed small to me, not even talking. He shook the cop's hand and reminded him to stick around for some food. "My sisters put together a feast," he said. "Like nothing you ever seen." The cop nodded and melted into the crowd.
"That's Officer Stazzone," Uncle Vinny said to no one in particular. "His grandparents were from Napoli." Then to Mamma: "Where's your husband?" He stood on the tips of his toes and quickly scanned the crowd, his eyes narrow and focused. "Where's Salvatore?" he asked. "He's part of this, too."
Mamma shrugged. Her bracelets jangled gently as she fingered the gold cross hanging from her necklace. "Dio lo sa'," she said.
Vinny frowned. He tapped his watch and said, "Ma che cazzo?" before walking off towards where I last saw Pop. He wasn't gone long, however. At precisely eight o'clock, like a church bell, my uncle emerged from the throng alone. "Attenzione!" he shouted. "Everybody! It's time to get started."
The wooden sign lay face down on the concrete. It was rigged with thick ropes that rose loosely and hooked around the naked awning, which acted like a pulley. A space was cleared and Mamma's seven brothers stepped forward. They walked with their arms raised, as Polaroids and 35mm cameras flashed and clicked, and more than a few people applauded. Mamma's father and Santino joined them, and, after each man had grabbed an end, one rope remained.
Uncle Vinny turned toward the crowd. He put two fingers to his mouth and whistled. "Salvatore!" he called. "Where's my sister's husband?"
"Eccolo!" A woman responded. Dozens of eyes turned toward her. She pointed over her shoulder at Pop, who stood apart from everyone, his right arm draped over a parking meter. He was smoking a cigarette. I followed the red tip as it cut lazily through the air. Something about the way he smoked made him look worn-down. He worked a lot, I knew that. But it went beyond being tired, which I felt myself strangely understanding, if only vaguely, even then. His skin seemed washed out in the light, like he could have taken two steps in either direction and disappeared completely. Without notice. Without caring. It occurred to me that I should go to him. Instead, I groped for Mamma's hand and squeezed it. I watched a cloud escape from his mouth and ascend toward the building tops.
Uncle Vinny took a step toward him. "Whatta you doin'?"
The shadows from the train tracks striped Pop's face. He held up the cigarette and raised his eyebrows.
"Vieni!" Uncle Vinny called. "Let's go."
Pop offered a tight-lipped smile, shook his head and waved his hand. "No. Grazie," he said.
Uncle Vinny insisted, and several voices from the crowd implored him, but again, Pop refused. "My back hurts," he said. "I was on my feet all day."
Mamma squeezed my hand firmly, her fingers were cold. She bit her lip and stood still, but her mother didn't.
Nonna Alba waddled through the crowd and sidled up next to Pop. "Andiamo, Razi!" she shouted, her voice harsh and raspy. My grandmother always called Pop by his last name. She put her arm through his and escorted him toward my uncles. "It's too late now. This is your famiglia." As they walked she reached up and yanked Pop's earlobe, which made everyone laugh.
My other uncles followed Vinny's lead and whistled their approval as Pop flicked his cigarette and quietly took the final rope. "I thought I was gonna have to pay you," Uncle Vinny said. "Since when are you shy?" He motioned to Mamma and Aunt Lucy who stood a few feet away. "Keep an eye on the kids," my uncle said, laughing. "These ropes are nothing more than pastry box strings."
Two contractors were already up the ladders on either side of the awning. "On the count of three," one of them called. And inside of a few minutes the sign was up and being fastened while everyone applauded. Vinny and Famiglia, it read. Gourmet Italian-American Pork Store. There were two painted flags, an Italian and an American, which crossed each other like an X between Famiglia and Gourmet.
Mamma's family shouted and laughed and hugged. Uncle Vinny swept me up, kissed my cheeks and squeezed me so hard I gasped for air. "Jeckie, baby," he said, once again. "Today's a big day."
I was set down and picked up by each of Mamma's brothers. One moment I was in a bear hug, the next balanced on a set of shoulders. I was held parallel to the ground, shaken, carried like a sack of flour and even held upside down by the ankles. It was the closest I've ever come to being on a trampoline. I braced myself for whatever else might happen, which right then seemed like anything. Before I caught my breath someone sent a rocket into the air. It rose straight through the narrow space between the train platform and the row of connected buildings. When it burst, the avenue lit up so that I could see the scuff marks on my black loafers. Mamma was chasing after Aia, who had strayed too close to the street. Nonna Alba was crying. Uncle Vinny was kissing everyone he got his hands on. I took it all in, giddy with nervous excitement.
After a moment or two, I noticed Pop was nowhere in sight. I wandered off looking for him—past my uncles, past my aunts and through the glut of people who were making their way into the store. As I pushed against the surge I bumped into Nonna Alba; she reached down, pinched my cheek and kissed her fingers. I heard Mamma calling my name, but I ignored her. I ducked behind one of the iron columns that held up the train platform, and watched her get swept inside, head swiveling from left to right.
When I located Pop he was lighting another cigarette, closer to the bakery than the Pork Store. He was staring up at our second floor apartment. We'd lived there since Uncle Vinny bought the building two months before. Another train rumbled overhead—this time heading east, on its way toward Richmond Hill. I called out to my father, but he stood motionless and inhaled. At the time, I must have figured he didn't hear me.
Soon after the first bottle of champagne exploded, the women disappeared into the back to get the food ready. Uncle Vinny pulled Lala and me aside. He pinched both our cheeks and gave us our orders.
"You two are the oldest," he said, bending to a knee in front of the meat freezer. She was six, I was five. "So you're in charge. If you see anyone you don't know taking anything." He paused and looked over each shoulder, dramatically. We were at the back of the store, in the chop room. All around us family members were toasting and eating and talking loudly. "Off the shelves, out of the refrigerators, I don't care. Make sure you kick them where it hurts and then tell an adult in the famiglia. Understand?"
Lala and I nodded, seriously.
Uncle Vinny rose and stood over us. He knocked the sawdust from his white pants and slid his fingers through his hair. His gold chain glinted in the fluorescent lights. A young blonde woman walked by and brushed her fingers across his arm as she passed. "Congratulations," she said. Uncle Vinny smiled and placed both his hands at his sides, like Superman. "Thank you, darling. I hope you're enjoying yourself."
"Daddy," Lala said. "What happens if we catch someone? Do we get a prize?"
Uncle Vinny bit the knuckle of his index finger, then kissed her on the forehead. "That's my girl," he said excitedly. He reached into his pocket and produced a bill as though he were performing a magic act. "Five dollars," he announced, holding it stiff between both hands. Lala and I looked at one another. My uncle was forever giving us dollars for doing things he asked—taking out the garbage, eating our vegetables, repeating to our moms the dirty words he taught us—but five dollars was a small fortune. Uncle Vinny pointed to his eye, meaning we should keep ours open. "Even if it's just a piece of candy," he whispered. "A nice kick. Boom!"
Lala and I made a game out of it, setting up patrols and hand signs, while the adults clamored around in that noisy world we didn't understand: champagne; laughter; at one point, while on patrol, I saw Uncle Vinny disappear behind a door marked "Office" in the hallway flanking the chop room. He was with two men—Argento and the policeman, officer Stazzone, from earlier in the night. I leaned close to the door and listened.
"Just pay him," Argento said. "It'll make things easier in the long run."
"I don't care who he is," Uncle Vinny said, practically shouting.
"Calm down," Argento said.
They spoke in hushed tones for a few minutes after that. I was still standing there when they came out.
"Jeckie," Uncle Vinny said. "Che fai?"
"I'm waiting for the bathroom," I lied.
Argento and the cop continued walking. Uncle Vinny stooped and patted my head. "You catch anyone?" He asked this in a tone my aunts used when they wanted me to leave a room, when they didn't think I was old enough to stick around. I hated it.
"Why is that policeman here? Did you get robbed?"
Uncle Vinny stood and crossed his arms. He ran his tongue over the stubble of his upper lip and acted confused. "Why would you say that?"
"I heard you this morning. Under my window."
He let out a disbelieving chuckle as he fingered his shirt collar and looked past my shoulder, towards the crowd. "You saw me? This morning?"
I nodded. "You were yelling."
"That's impossible, Jeckie baby. I was with your uncles this morning. We were all together having breakfast. Then we all came to the store."
And before I could say anything further, he reached out and took the flesh of my cheek between his fingers, kneading it like a piece of dough. He took a lone dollar out of his pocket and handed it to me. "It's a bonus," he said, putting an arm across my shoulder. Then, grinning, "But don't tell Lala. She'll be mad at both of us."
We walked a few steps before Uncle Vinny stopped and took his arm off me. To our right was the bathroom. My cheeks filled with heat. Uncle Vinny pushed the door open, turned on the light and winked at me. "Don't forget to wipe the seat," he said.
My patrol extended outside where people were clustered on the sidewalk. The job wasn't easy. In addition to the foot traffic on the avenue, a constant flow of bodies moved in and out of the glass doors. On the back end of my third or fourth round I made a bust. I noticed an older kid, a teenager, walking out through the doors with half a sandwich and a Mellow Yellow. He wore a collared shirt and tie, like me, but he didn't look familiar. I stared for a moment, then ran up to him and kicked him between the legs. He cursed as I ran inside. I heard his soda gushing and hissing as it hit the floor.
Inside, Lala stood by the cash registers unwrapping a Hershey bar. "What are you doing?" I asked, nearly out of breath, looking over my shoulder. "Why aren't you walking around?"
Lala shrugged and offered me a piece of chocolate. "This game's boring," she said. "Let's play something else."
"Where's your father?" I asked. "I caught someone!"
"I don't know," she said. Her eyes closed as she stuffed a chunk of chocolate into her mouth and chewed. She pointed toward the back of the store and muttered something inaudible. I stayed on task, focused on the five dollars Uncle Vinny had promised. I couldn't grasp why Lala wasn't excited about the prospect of so much cash. It didn't occur to me that she was already becoming used to the idea of getting everything she wanted just for being my uncle's kid.
Behind Lala, two long picnic tables, pushed together end to end, overflowed with the food Mamma and her sisters had spent all day preparing.
On the first table, at the end closest to the door, there was a fat pink pig. At the far end, in a foil pan filled with roasted potatoes and onions, there was a veal roast the size of a log, the outside brown and flaky. A roast beef sat in the middle of the table, and all along, wherever there was space, a muddle of side dishes and appetizers: rice balls, sausage and peppers, baked ziti, chicken cutlet parmigiana, potato croquettes; a large silver bowl overflowing with sautéed peas, a porcelain tray stacked high with caprese, a baking sheet lined with stuffed mushrooms; hors d'oeuvre trays loaded with sliced dry sausage and salami, provolone, roasted red peppers, prosciutto, artichoke hearts and olives—green and black. Atop the second table were the desserts and fruits: at least ten white pastry boxes packed with rum cakes, cannoli and Italian rainbow cookies; two large salad bowls crammed with grapes, blood oranges and peaches; a Tiramisu layer cake that Uncle Vinny had practically begged Mamma to make, and a pyramid of purple figs.
People hovered and circled the tables with plastic plates and utensils. I was a chunky kid. Under normal circumstances, I'd have squeezed in and filled my dish until it ran over. Right then, though, I was obsessed. Whether it was the five bucks or Uncle Vinny's approval or the ridiculous notion that I too was some undercover agent, I don't know. But making the bust was all I could think about.
I was jostled and ignored by unfamiliar faces. I slid past them, slowly, suddenly bewildered by all the people Uncle Vinny had invited. It occurred to me that I hadn't seen anyone I knew, besides Lala and Uncle Vinny, since the party started. Several parents raised their children high into the air to grab the red, white and green helium balloons pressed against the ceiling; I nearly took down a man and his daughter as I weaved toward the chop-room.
The butcher blocks that would soon be stained with blood and fat were stacked with plastic cups and half empty Remy Martin bottles. There were maybe twenty people in the room. I caught sight of Mamma laughing—head tilted back, mouth open to the air-conditioned room. Uncle Vinny's friend, Argento, was speaking into her ear. Mamma had one hand pressed firmly around his bicep, her thin fingers lifting then falling against the shiny silver fabric of his suit, as if she were playing the flute and keeping time to a tune in her head. Her other hand was wrapped around a plastic champagne glass.
"Mamma! Mamma!" I shouted, and the laughter drained from her face. She looked the way I felt whenever she caught me teasing my sister or picking my nose or doing anything she didn't approve of. For a second, it seemed like she was trying to place me. "That guy's eating," I said, confused, a bit startled by her reaction. I pointed toward the general direction of the outside doors, where I had kicked the teenager, and, for all I knew, Lala was taking full credit for my work. "He had a sandwich and a—"
A stern stiffness crept across Mamma's face. She spoke with her hands, her bracelets clacking loudly. "Che dici?" she said.
"Do we know him?"
"Where's your father?" she asked, almost angrily.
"Uncle Vinny said only people we know are allowed. He said we were supposed to—"
Mamma grabbed my wrist hard. She used my proper Italian name. "Giacomo, what are you talking about?"
"Uncle Vinny promised us five dollars if we caught someone."
Mamma shook her head and waved her hand like I was a fly that had landed on her nose. "Did you see your father?" she insisted. I hadn't. Not since right after the sign-raising. "We taking the big picture now, the whole famiglia. Go see if he's upstairs."
"But Mamma. I gotta find Uncle Vinny. What about—"
She landed a quick, sharp slap across my face. "Subito!"
Tears welled up in my eyes, but I resisted the urge to cry. I frowned and snaked back through the heart of the party, hoping with each step to run into my uncle and get what was owed to me.
As I sped past the food toward the avenue, I noticed that the store's immaculate order was already crumbling. For weeks Mamma's family worked well past dark preparing. But soon, all that hard work would be a waste. In an hour's time the food would be picked and scattered, strewn across the plastic tablecloths, squashed beneath people's feet. The floor would be sticky and littered with popped balloons, the glass display cases visibly smudged—caked with fingerprints and spilled drinks. The streamers, taut and regal when the doors opened, would hang limp from the ceiling. People would cast them aside as they scavenged what was left.
When I got close to the entrance I noticed Uncle Vinny. I watched as he shook a man's hand and kissed a woman's cheek. I grew ecstatic as I thought about my reward, but the feeling was short lived. It crashed the moment I saw the older kid, the teenager I'd busted only minutes before, suddenly standing beside my uncle, who wrapped his arm around his shoulder. The kid apparently wasn't a stranger, though I'd never seen him before. And never would again.
"Right out of nowhere," I heard the woman say. "I'd love to have a word with that kid's mother."
"Of course," Uncle Vinny said in that booming voice of his. "Who wouldn't?"
The man then said something, but his voice was low and gruff and I couldn't make out the words. Uncle Vinny laughed a long cackling laugh in response. He reached into his pocket and handed the kid a five dollar bill. My five dollar bill.
I wasn't sure why—maybe it was the sound of his laughter, maybe it was the money—but at that moment I had the urge to lunge at him.
The kid saw me then. He pointed at me and took a step in my direction. Uncle Vinny stepped in front of him as all three adults turned toward me. "Jeckie," Uncle Vinny said. "Come here."
I shot past them and made for the exit. I couldn't get to my father fast enough.
The stairwell that led to our apartment was frighteningly dark, but the fuzzy loudness that bled in from the Pork Store comforted me.
At the top of the stairs, I was surprised to find our door unlocked. I nudged it open and stepped across the threshold into the hallway. "Pop? It's me," I called. "Are you in here?" There was no answer.
I froze when the J train roared over the avenue. I closed my eyes as it shook the apartment and made the windows rattle. This shouldn't have frightened me. I was as used to the J train as I was to Uncle Vinny's cheek pinching, or Pop's singing his way up the stairs after work. I often stared out my bedroom window waving at the conductor. I loved the way the train hummed through the night like a refrigerator. But right then the train screeched to a halt at the Woodhaven Boulevard stop, and I broke into a cold sweat. Then it started back up like a cranky rollercoaster. It crept towards full speed and faded towards Richmond Hill before I opened my eyes again.
I wiped my face with my sleeve and kept walking, my heart thumping to the point of exhaustion.
Our apartment, a four-room railroad apartment, with worn split-pea carpets and fake oak paneling, was usually well lit. Familiar and warm. As I made my way toward the strip of rooms, however, I felt like I'd never been there before. The apartment's darkness was even denser than the hallway's. The only light was a small slice of moonglow that slipped in through the kitchen window. The lone sound was the creaking of the floorboards beneath me. I called out for Pop again—still no answer.
"Watch your feet," Pop said finally as I entered the living room. His voice came from the sofa; the curtains were drawn and I couldn't see him. "There's glass on the floor." I reached for the light switch, but Pop told me to leave it dark. His eyes hurt.
"Mamma said they want to take a picture. She says you gotta come down."
"Is everybody happy?" Pop asked.
"Everybody? What about your mamma?"
"I guess," I repeated. "She was drinking champagne."
It felt like I was talking to a spirit. I took a step forward, a little uneasily, and heard what sounded like cereal crunching under my shoes. I felt a sharp bite through the bottom of my worn sole, and stifled an Ouch.
"What did I tell you? Watch your feet!"
"But I can't see nothing," I said. I was more than ready to cry. Floating, I waited for my father to act as a lighthouse and bring me in. "Where are you?"
"Vai. Turn on the light," Pop said. In retrospect, reluctantly. "But not the big one. The lampadaio."
When I turned on the floor lamp Pop was leaning back into the corner of our cow-spotted sofa. He held an ashtray in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other—a Marlboro red. In front of him, the coffee table was demolished. The frame was on its side, and what was once the glass tabletop lay all around the room in sparkling little flakes and jagged shards. I checked to see if the ceiling fan had fallen or a piece of the ceiling itself, but everything else was intact. Pop made eye contact with me, but what did I have to say? He stubbed out his cigarette, exhaled smoke, and waved me over. I hesitated. He looked like a brooding dragon. "Come here," Pop insisted, patting the sofa. My legs moved toward him. He motioned for me to show him my foot.
I sat down, still apprehensive. I half-expected someone to come out and kill both of us. Across from me, in a small wooden frame on top of the television, was the picture of Pop and Uncle Vinny taken outside the San Paolo soccer stadium in Napoli. This was before they'd ever come to the States, before Pop and Mamma got together. Each of them held a Napoli team scarf, stretched out over their heads. They weren't much older than the teenager from downstairs.
"You're not always gonna be happy," Pop said. He took off my shoe and sighed. His sudden gentleness calmed me. "But when you feel like you can't to do something about it," he said, lighting another smoke before continuing. "That's when you really understand how it feels to be mad com' un cane."
I wondered what it meant to be mad like a dog. Pop paused and blew a cloud into the room. I imagined a German shepherd chasing me, and then Pop, on all fours, chasing it. Why would anyone want to act like a dog? I had no idea what Pop was talking about.
Surprisingly, there was no blood on my sock; Pop slid the shoe back over it and tapped my ankle. He hugged me in the way I usually hugged Mamma, desperate for warmth and caressing. He stroked my hair and kissed my cheek. "Adesso andiamo," he said rising to his feet, "before Mamma shows up."
That was the summer of '81. The Thursday night before Labor Day weekend. In the end, we only spent eleven months living on Jamaica Avenue, but it's what I keep coming back to.
About the author:
Giuseppe Taurino lives in Austin, Texas, where he is the Education Programs Coordinator for Badgerdog Literary Publishing. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast and Six Sentences, and is forthcoming in Tuesday Shorts.
© 2013 Word Riot