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So where was that little birdie when I needed him? You know, the one who flits around your brain screeching ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ at the most annoying times? Because he sure wasn’t there this morning, chirping ‘don’t get out of bed if you know what’s good for you, knucklehead!’ So I shot up as soon as I heard Papa yelling, and smacked into the crappiest day of my whole stupid teenage life.
“YO, STELLA! You gettin’ ready or what? I don’t want no more late slips ’round here!”
I knew from experience it was better to say nothing than answer my father. He’d just lecture me for running late—or worse, get even more ticked-off. So I flew into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. I could rinse off in two shakes—then pretend I’d been done for hours. It wasn’t the most honest thing to do. But it was the safest.
I hopped out of the shower and pressed my ear to the door. Silence.Ah—pure, dewy silence. I was golden.So I cranked up my transistor radio and dried off. Before I knew it, I was crooning along—with a towel draped over my head, trying to decide if I’d make a good nun.
‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind….’
I didn’t sound anything like Bob Dylan. But that was a good thing, I reminded myself.
“STELLA!” Papa yelled again.
This time I had to respond, so I hollered, “Coming, Papa!”
“Get down here before I wring your neck!”
Uh-oh. That’s when I quit singing. I knew Papa was pissed the minute he mentioned my neck.I tossed my towel into a corner and scooped my robe off the floor—right where my sister’d left it, the thief. How many times did I have to tell that kid to keep her mitts off my stuff?
“And make it snappy!” he added.
“Coming, Papa!” My hair was a mess, and I couldn’t find my slippers. But I went anyway.
I’d barely skidded into the kitchen when he said, “So. What’s your excuse this time, Miss Slo-o-o-wpoke?”
“Umm… nothing, Papa.” I glanced around, shivering. Mama’s arms were buried in suds—she was probably washing dishes just to keep warm. Sophie and Nonna were huddled together at the table, wrapped up in blankets like cannoli.
My father, on the other hand, was leaning back with his arms outstretched, reading the NY Post—oblivious to the fog wafting out of our mouths. Whenever we complained about the cold, he just said he liked to ‘conserve energy.’ We knew he meant moolah.
“Whaddya mean nothin’?”
“Umm… I was just …tired, Papa. That’s all.”
I didn’t feel like explaining, so I pulled out a chair—one of those tacky chrome and vinyl jobs from the ’50’s—and sat on my feet. Maybe Papa would return to his paper.
But no such luck. He scowled at me as if I’d speak if he did it long enough. But I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I shifted my weight from cheek to cheek to unfreeze my toes. Sophie snorted when they made a sticking sound— which didn’t surprise me. She snickered at the worst times.
Papa ignored her, just twisted his paper into a tube and flicked it against the table.
“Tired my ass. You don’t know what tired is. I was”—flick, flick—“workin’ at your age. Yeah, you heard me”—flick, flick—“thirteen-years-old and slicin’ salami.”
“Right,” said Mama, with a smirk. “And you have the missing fingers to prove it.” Good thing she stood at the sink and all he could see was her back. Papa dropped the Post and kneaded his hands before continuing.
“So, Stella. What’chu so tired about, huh, sleepyhead?” It sounded innocent enough, but there was heat in his voice—I could hear it. I could feel it. Lucky for me Mama cut in, because I had no idea what to say.
“Basta, Tony!” she shouted, spinning around. “Leave her alone—before you wake up the neighbors.” The turquoise dish in her hands clattered to the floor. Drat. It was sad to see another nappy bowl bit the dust. “Then you’ll be the one who has to explain.”
I cringed. I hated it when my parents fought. It was bad enough Papa treated me like crap. But Mama? She wasn’t the one who’d overslept; I was.
At first, Papa just sat there like a pylon. Then he stood up and planted his fists on the table. It wobbled when he leaned over me, and I could feel his breath—hot, moist and full of chicory.
“Huh?” he said, ignoring my mother. “What’s keepin’ you from gettin’ up on time, Miss ‘Got the Weight of the World on your Shoulders?’ Poverty? Injustice? Social inequality? Ha, Stella! You’re a dreamer.”
Papa was making fun of me for being eighth grade class rep, but I had to reply.
“No, Papa. I’m not a dreamer. I …just want to help people. Do something with my life. You know… like the Beatles—or… or… Bob Dylan.” His song ran through my head again as I tried to think. But the answer was definitely not ‘blowin’ in the wind.’ Not in my wind, anyway.
“Help people?” Papa said, laughing. “Help people? Oh, Lord—give me a break. I think I’m gonna cry!” Then he rolled his hands into knots and pretended to rub his eyes.
“Yes, Papa—.”But it was no use. Why should I try to convince my father Holy Infant’s food drive was important? He didn’t care about poor people. He only cared about himself.
“Oh, Lord!” he said, laughing some more. “Help me, why don’t ’cha! Help me pay the rent. The electric. The gas. The—.”
“Eh, Tony—basta cosi!” yelled Mama. But he couldn’t hear. He was too busy yukking it up.
“Ahhh, Stella,” he said with a belch. “You’re killin’ me. You and what’s-her-name, your Chinese friend—Pin Pin—you think you’re gonna save the world? Ha—you can’t even get your own ass outa bed!”
Well, I had to admit he was right about that. Still, the food bank needed donations, and it was my job to get them. Especially if I wanted to go to Regis next fall—which I did. We both did—Pin and me, that is. Big-time. But we had to win scholarships, and good grades weren’t enough.
Sometimes I’m not sure anything was enough—unless you were rich and ornery like Teresa Como, 8-B’s class rep—and my archenemy. For some crazy reason, she wanted a scholarship, too, even though she had plenty of other options. Unlike Pin and me, whose only hope for getting out of this he _ _ hole was Regis Academy for Girls, located far, far away, in the Catskills.
“Sí, Papa,” I mumbled at last. Maybe he’d stop hassling me if I spoke in Italian.
“Good. Just so we got that straight: I bring home the bacon. You save the world.”
Mama must’ve had it by now, though, because she spun around again and slapped him with her washcloth. “Tony,” she said, “enough!”
That’s when Papa lost it. Grabbed his ratty bomber jacket and barged out the door.
I sucked in my breath. It was my fault. But the truth is anything could set my father off. I knew it, we all did. And though part of me felt like slugging him, part of me felt sorry, too. He looked so rumpled and old, and work hadn’t even started yet. Not that it mattered—there was no dress code at the Groceria, and Papa wore an apron all day anyway.
“Whew,” I sighed. I could only hold my breath for so long—and this was long enough. One more minute and I’d float to the ceiling.
Mama looked at me and shook her head.
“When you gonna learn, Stella?Next time he’s gonna mash you like a potato. Swallow you whole—like this.” She shoved a soggy biscotto into her mouth as if to demonstrate.
Sophie giggled when I flinched. But Nonna just patted her on the back—as if she were the one who needed comforting.
“Sorry, Mama,” I said, trying to explain. “But I couldn’t get up. Teenagers are supposed to sleep, aren’t they? And I do want to help people… like… uh… President Kennedy did, before he... uh….”
JFK had died five years ago, but we still didn’t use the d-word in my house. And though I felt a little guilty comparing myself to a dead president, I couldn’t tell Mama about Regis. Because, for one thing, she wasn’t crazy about Pin Pin. And for another, she’d have killed me. Italian girls weren’t supposed to leave home till they got married.
Just then, a half-smile flickered across Mama’s face.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Nothing’s funny, carita. It’s just…. Your father, he’s… he’s… a cynical son-of-a-b—.” Her voice trailed off for a minute before she added, “Look, Stella. Papa don’t wanna get up either. But he has to. We all do.” With that, she plunked a glass of gooey eggs and milk in front of me and said “Mangia.”
Madonne. Mama expected me to drink this vile stuff every morning. Says she’s never heard of salmonella. Me? I have to guzzle three cappucini just to wash it down.
When I cringed, she popped me on the side of the head and pointed to the glass. “Eh—pronto! Mangia bene!”
I stared at the eggs and milk. One sip and I’d puke. Suddenly, all I could think of was next year: high school—Regis—the scholarship. That was my ticket out of this house, this family, this city. I had to get away—upstate—anywhere, really. And for now that meant Regis. I had to win that scholarship or I’d die. Literally. There were only so many raw eggs I could eat.
Nonna chimed in as Mama hurried out the door. “Anna! Honest and true—you gonna give la bambina agita. Look at’a me. Mio stomaco’s—come se dice—so weak-a, I can hardly eat-a.”
My grandmother swears everything she says is ‘honest and true.’ But I’m not sure. She’s no slouch when it comes to eating, especially breakfast. When I glanced at her plate—two sausages, three eggs, four slices of bread—gone in a flash! All that was left were crumbs on her chest. Which wasn’t her fault—her boobs stuck out like a ledge.
Just then my grandfather shuffled in. His timing’s perfect.
“Buon giorno, cara mia.” He leaned over to kiss Nonna. His teeth were still in his pocket. I know this because his routine never changes. He shuffles in, kisses my grandmother, whips out his teeth. I’ve told him a hundred times—get up, insert teeth, then kiss Nonna. But it never works.
“Hey, Nonno,” said Sophie, perking up all of a sudden. “Can I have a dollar? I need a book. For school.”
I knew she’d talk sooner or later—sooner if she wanted something. That’s the difference between Sophie and me: she doesn’t mind asking for stuff. And she usually gets it. Me? My head could explode and my folks wouldn’t notice. And I refused to ask my grandparents.
“Book-a? Una dollar-i? What you want, cara mia? What you need?” My grandfather called everybody ‘cara,’ even the milkman.
“A book—a schoolbook. I just told you.” She looked at me and grinned. She wanted to buy candy—lots of candy—and I knew it.
“So,” I said. “What kind of schoolbook, Sophie?”
“Uh, you know, Stella. A…a holy book.”
“Oh… I see. What kind of holy book, Sophie?” I asked all smiley and sweet. I could outwit this kid. Okay—so it might not take much to outwit a seven-year-old. But trust me, Sophie’s not a normal seven-year-old.
“Uh... you know, Stell. The kind…with holes in it.” Then she gave me the stink eye.
“No, Sophie,” I said, ignoring the look. “I don’t know. What exactly is a holy book with holes in it?” I was gonna nail this kid—she was such a conniver. “Please enlighten me.”
But she didn’t have time to answer, because Nonna jumped in.
“Eh, Salvatore! Ti sciocco. Donne la ragazza de monata. Uno dollore. Pronto!” Which roughly translated means ‘Hey, Salvatore—just give her the money, you cabbage-head. One buck. Now!’ Then she shook her fist at Nonno and inhaled another slice of toast.
“Geez, Stella,” said Sophie. “You’re so nosey. If you want a book, get one yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said as Nonno handed her a buck, “right.” I get eggs-and-milk, she gets cash. But I didn’t care, because next year I’d be at a place where people didn’t yell and scream and con each other out of dollar bills. Oh, yeah—next year I’d be at Regis. I could feel it in my bones. Unless that ache was my body telling me to get back in bed. Which is where I would’vebeen if that little birdie hadn’t been such a loser.
But, no, thanks to him, I got up. And things got worse. Much worse.
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