January 6, 1949. We had no phone, no car, only one kitchen, and I still slept in the same room with my sister, Theresa. I was in the seventh grade at Saint Michael's and that's why I remember the year. I know the day, the Feast of the Epiphany, because that was when Papa and I and other fathers and sons took down the Christmas lights that spanned our row of two-bedroom, shoulder-to-shoulder homes. And on that day, Mama and Papa announced that our garage, like nearly all the others on the block, would become a second kitchen.
Papa, a mason by trade, would do the work. He measured, calculated linear, square and cubic feet, and wrote fat numbers with the dull point of a stubby pencil.
Weekends and evenings, in woolly sweaters and long johns, he worked and cursed and sang "San Antonio Rose," his favourite American song. But except for calling through the house for Mama, "Filomena, Filomena," Papa could not sing.
By the beginning of April, except for the stove we couldn't buy for three or four paydays after Easter, and the refrigerator, a few paydays after the stove, we had a downstairs kitchen.
"A beautiful job, Vincenzo," Mama had told him so many times.
She and Theresa loaded the white metal cabinets with glasses and dishes not as fancy as the glasses and dishes in the upstairs wood cabinets.
"It'll be cooler down here in the summer, Anthony could bring his friends, the house is even bigger. A beautiful job, Vincenzo."
In the dusk of the first warm Saturday in the year of the downstairs kitchen, dinner done, dishes away, Papa sat on the back porch near the upstairs kitchen window, his two-cup, beat-up espresso pot on the concrete window sill.
Through Mama's white summer curtains I asked, "Any of the guys out back, Papa?" "Nobody. You no hear, nice and quiet?"
Mama, Theresa and I had been sitting at the red topped kitchen table spooning chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream from cereal bowls. The quart carton sat mid-table in its own bowl, next to a stack of paper napkins. With a finger, Theresa scribbled her initials in the carton's sweat.
Both she and Mama had dark brown curls as round as demitasse saucers. Mama always crooned with the radio and sang the old Neapolitan songs her mother had sung. She taught the tunes to Theresa and they performed together, cheek to cheek or room to room, harmonizing the final three or four notes.
Mama was taller, roundish. Her face, according to Papa and a few glasses of wine, was as round as the autumn moon over Capobianco, the small town that clung to the side of a dusty mountain where he lived until leaving for L'America. Theresa, small and thin as Papa, had a nose like his, a beak and a bump.
Mama and Papa never yelled at Theresa. She never did anything wrong and, because of her, neither did I. She would have detected the stains of sin on my soul.
She had been born with the veil and knew things nobody - not nuns, not priests, not doctors - could know. She knew when an aunt or uncle was coming over, knew when somebody died, was hurt or sick. She dreamed numbers.
Papa said he never played them for fear his daughter would lose her gift. But with his short, blunt pencil, always in one pocket or another, he scribbled Theresa's three digit predictions on his newspaper or a paper napkin or whatever, and, when he hit, kept it quiet. But we knew, his hand digging into his pocket too quickly for ice cream money.
Mama twisted in her chair, faced the window. "Vincenzo, the ice cream. We're gonna finish if you don't want."
"I no want."
Mama scooped half of what remained into my bowl, gave Theresa the other half, then crushed the carton and stuffed it into the garbage bag under the sink.
"Anthony, you gotta take out this garbage."
She stood up, set her bowl and spoon in the sink, turned and, fidgeting with something at her waist, centred herself in a faded house dress.
"Anthony, this Wednesday, your father, he's coming home with that man. Remember that man who brought the dining room table?"
"The beard?" I shoveled equal amounts of vanilla and strawberry into my mouth.
"Right. He's bringing a new bed. For you."
"For me? What's wrong with my bed?" I asked, alerted by a chatter in my chest, a chunk of something in my throat.
Mama folded her hands under her chin as if to pray, leaned from her waist and set her eyes on mine. "Anthony, listen. You can't sleep in the bedroom with Theresa anymore. You're a big boy and she's a woman now. She needs privacy." Mama stood straight again.
Exactly what I'd suspected, exactly what I wanted. But it didn't feel like something I wanted. "Woman? She's fourteen."
Mama's eyes widened. "Yes, right, and she needs privacy. And so do you. Anyway, two beds in that small room . . . you should be glad to have your own place."
We got room. My bed's on first base and hers is on third." It was a game we played with balled-up looseleaf paper.
"You like to get dressed every time in the bathroom?" Mama asked.
"Sometimes I go in your room. So does she. Okay, so good. Where am I gonna sleep? The living room? With the radio? Neat."
"Better than the living room."
"Where, Ma? Nothing's better than the living room."
"The new kitchen, nice and private."
"Kitchen?" I whined. "The kitchen used to be a garage."
Mama leaned again, took my face between her palms. "What else can we do, Anthony? You want to move to another house?" She let go my face.
Between the cold ice cream and the moment, I needed to pee.
Theresa had been poking her spoon into her ice cream, not eating any. She'd been quiet, thoughtful, and now brought an overload of strawberry near her mouth, held it, tilted her head and grinned at me.
"You know, Theresa, you're a jerk."
"I didn't say a thing," she said, that grin still going.
"You don't have to. Stupid."
"I, stupid?" The grin moved to her eyes. "You must be mistaken."
I needed to dilute what was coming. "Smartest freshman. Okay? Big deal, okay?"
"Highest Freshman Honours, little boy."
"That's enough," Mama said and slapped the table.
"I'm not stupid," Theresa hissed, and plunged the frozen overload into her mouth. I gave it a few seconds. "How's your teeth feel?"
She tried to scowl, but needed to suck her face into her mouth to warm her teeth.
"Nice and cool, smart freshman?"
"Stop that." Mama slapped my hand.
"What if I have to pee in the middle of the night? Two flights up to . . ."
Theresa clubbed the table with the sides of her hands, kept them there. Mama and I watched and waited.
"Aunt Lucy. Something's wrong."
Aunt Lucy was a third grade teacher and looked like Ida Lupino. She hadn't found us for kisses and hugs. Instead, she, Mama and Papa hoofed straight to the upstairs kitchen, not to eat, not for coffee, but for talk.
In the dark Theresa and I, friends again, sat on the porch steps listening to Aunt Lucy's voice, its usual crescendo and decrescendo lost in the short, flat tone of Sam Spade.
"This morning, I get home from church. On the floor, near the door, an envelope. With money."
"How much money?" Papa asked, excited.
"Vincenzo." Mama snapped.
Theresa and I looked at each other. I giggled, covered my mouth.
"That's all right, Fil," Aunt Lucy said, then nearly whispered, "Five hundred dollars."
"More better with the money than with o sfacim."
"Don't think I don't know that," Aunt Lucy said, her voice breaking in and out of a whisper. "All the rotten things . . . can't think of any good . . . almost killed me with the gambling. And now it killed him."
"Killed him?" I asked.
Theresa put a finger to her lips.
"She crying?" I asked.
"I'm gonna make coffee, Lucy," Mama said. "Or you want tea?"
"Did you eat?"
"I had something."
Aimless footsteps, chairs scraping, quiet.
From my bed I stared out at the dark, more threatening and uncertain than other nights, the horned demons of my Catholic school imagination tormenting Uncle Cosmo with fire and pitchforks.
The hail light clicked on and a slice of it fell on Theresa's bed. When Mama's footsteps got to the bathroom and the door closed, I asked, "Theresa, did they kill Uncle Cosmo?" "I don't know."
"Is he dead?"
After a second, she said, "We'll never see him again."
"Is he in hell?"
She didn't answer.
"We all have guardian angels?"
Up on an elbow, Theresa broke the cut of light and sent a silhouette of curls and Papa's nose against the wall. "Yes, Anthony. You keep asking me that. We all have angels."
"Uncle Cosmo, too?"
"He has an angel, too."
"Even in hell?"
"We don't know if he's in hell."
The bathroom door opened, the hall light went out and Mama's footsteps padded off. I heard Theresa lie back.
"Ever see your angel?" I asked.
"No, but he's here."
"Mine here, too?"
"Always. God makes sure of that."
"They really have those wings?"
"Yes, and they're strong and fast and watch us all the time. Even when we're sleeping."
Even when we're sleeping.
One Our Father, three Hail Marys and a Glory Be dissolved visions of hell into angel wings and the face of Rosalie Frateliolli, innocent instigator of my impending eviction.
With long brown hair and eyes Papa called ravioli eyes, Rosalie was, except for Veronica Lake, the prettiest of all. But two months before I'd reach thirteen, she would be fifteen and, anyway, she'd said she never would marry anybody but Frank Sinatra.
I'd been shooting marbles. Down to a few favourite immies, I stopped the game. "Be right back."
"Hurry up, Antnee."
I leaped two and three steps at a time, swooshed open the bedroom door.
Rosalie at Theresa's mirror. New brassiere, half on or half off. Green price tag.
Rosalie turned away so fast, and so did I and snatched my bag of marbles and scooted out, Theresa whining, "Anthony. What the hell's the matter with you. You're gonna get it this time, Anthony."
The rest of the day, playing stickball, riding my bike, going up the hill for milk and bread, I tingled with the half second intimacy between me and Rosalie.
Before dinner, I said, "Treesa, I thought you and Rosalie were still shopping with her mother and father."
"You should have knocked."
"I should have knocked, okay? But don't act like I knew what exact second to go in."
"You didn't tell anybody, I hope."
"Nobody. That's the truth." And it was. I would never have said anything to give Rosalie a bad reputation.
A rumbling black pickup rolled to a stop at our fence. In its bed, two mattresses stood on edge with a bed frame and a small, unpainted dresser.
The driver, a man with a black beard, a long black coat and a wide black hat, shut the engine and climbed out, tossing a final bite of something into his mouth.
Papa jumped from the passenger door. I ran to him so he could tap the side of my face with his scratchy palm and hand me his newspaper and Joe Palooka lunch box that used to be mine.
"This my son, Mr. Wooda. Anthony."
Mr. Woder. I read his name on the pickup's door advertising toys and bikes and nothing about beds or dining room tables. Mr. Woder grinned inside his beard, speckled with the crumbs of whatever he'd just eaten. Crackers, I guessed.
"Hello, Enteny. Deddy got for you such a bed," he said.
I think that's what he said.
"Hello, Mr. Woder," I said.
I held open the door as Papa and Mr. Woder carried in the frame and mattresses. They constructed a spiny iron skeleton, mattress and spring under another mattress and spring, then wheeled and jostled the contraption beneath my new, wide window.
Mr. Woder put a warm hand on the back of my neck. "Such a bed," he said. "And such a window never I saw. Big as the screen in the moving pictures." He mussed my hair and walked out with Papa.
I sat on a corner of the mattress. Theresa walked in from upstairs. She wore her school uniform.
"This is not a regular bed," she said. "When it's made up it looks like a couch. It's called a high riser. Rosalie has one too, but she calls it a day bed. And under this big window," she stepped back, "it goes so great."
She brushed cracker crumbs from the mattress, looked out the window. "I'll hold the door," she said.
I twisted to see Papa and Mr. Woder coming in with the small dresser I'd seen on the truck. "That's mine, too?"
"Sure is," Theresa said.
Papa and Mr. Woder went back out. I opened a drawer and whiffed a scent of pine.
"Mama says she has to buy blinds for the window, sheets and pillows, and Papa has to shellac the dresser."
"Where's it go?"
"By the boiler room door."
We shuffled the dresser in place. "Looks good," Theresa said. "And Papa's putting up three shelves." She pointed. "Here, here, here."
"How come you know all about this, but I'm the one who's sleeping in a kitchen? Maybe it was your idea to kick me out of a real bedroom."
"No, it wasn't, Anthony." She put a hand on a hip. "I never even said anything about that day with Rosalie, if that's what you're thinking."
"My idea, Anthony, was the dresser and the shelves. Unless you'd rather have that little thing upstairs with the two little drawers with your socks and marbles and junk that they wanted to give you."
As the pickup jerked away, lopsided and noisy, Theresa's eyes followed the white writing on the black door. Woder Toys, Electric Trains And Bicycles.
I wondered, silently, if Papa had bought my bike from Mr. Woder. Theresa wondered, out loud, "What's an electric bicycle?"
A smart-ass chuckle leaped to my chest. I captured it and felt it turn acid and afraid of never again hearing, in the threatening and uncertain dark, whispers of care and certainty from the smartest freshman at Our Lady Queen of Angels High School.
Ercole Joseph Gaudioso is a former New York City police officer. Since his retirement he has been dedicating his time to writing.