- About the Book
- About the Author
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- PART ONE
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
- Chapter 26
- Chapter 27
- Chapter 28
- Chapter 29
- Chapter 30
- Chapter 31
- PART TWO
- Chapter 32
- Chapter 33
- Chapter 34
- Chapter 35
- Chapter 36
- Chapter 37
- Chapter 38
- Chapter 39
- Chapter 40
- Chapter 41
- Chapter 42
- Chapter 43
- Chapter 44
- Chapter 45
- Chapter 46
- Chapter 47
- Chapter 48
- Chapter 49
- Chapter 50
- Chapter 51
- Chapter 52
- Chapter 53
- Chapter 54
- Chapter 55
- Chapter 56
- Chapter 57
- Chapter 58
- Chapter 59
- Chapter 60
- Chapter 61
- Chapter 62
- Chapter 63
- Chapter 64
- Chapter 65
- Chapter 66
- Chapter 67
- Chapter 68
- Chapter 69
- Author’s Acknowledgement
About the Book
New York, 1909: Fifteen-year-old Cetta arrives on a freighter with nothing but her infant son Natale: strikingly blond, dark-eyed, and precocious. They’ve fled the furthest reaches of southern Italy with the dream of a better life in America.
But even in the “Land of the Free,” the merciless laws of the gangs rule the miserable, poverty-stricken and crime-filled Lower East Side. Only those with enough strength and conviction will survive. As young Natale grows up in the Roaring Twenties, he finds he possesses a certain charisma that enables him to charm the dangerous people around him …
Weaving Natale’s unusual life and true love against the gritty backdrop of New York’s underbelly, Di Fulvio proves yet again that he is a master storyteller as he constructs enticing characters ravaged by circumstance, driven by dreams, and awakened by destiny.
Haunting and luminous, this masterfully written blend of romance, crime, and historical fiction will thrill lovers of turn-of-the-century dramas like Once Upon a Time in America and Gangs of New York.
About the Author
LUCA DI FULVIO was born in 1957 in Rome where he now works as an independent author. His versatile talent allows him to write riveting adult thrillers and cheerful children's stories (published under a pseudonym) with equal ease. One of his previous thrillers, L'Impagliatore, was filmed in Italian under the title Occhi di cristallo. Di Fulvio studied dramaturgy in Rome where he was mentored by none other than Andrea Camilleri
At first there were two of them watching her grow up — the mother and the padrone. One of them watched with dread, the other with a lazy lustfulness. But before she could become a woman, the mother made sure that the padrone wouldn’t look at her any more.
When the child was twelve years old, her mother mashed a thick juice out of poppy seeds, as the oldest women had taught her. She made the girl drink it, and, when she saw her start to stagger and grow drowsy, she picked her up and carried her on her back across the dusty path in front of their hut — on the padrone’s land — down to the dry stream bed and the dead oak tree. She broke a big branch off the old tree, then ripped the little girl’s dress and struck her forehead with a sharp stone, there where she knew much blood would flow. She pulled her daughter into an awkward pose on the stony riverbed — as if she’d rolled down the bank, falling from the dead tree — and left her there, with the broken branch on top of her. Then she came back to the hut and waited for the men to return from the fields, while she kept on stirring a pot of soup with onions, and lard. Only then did she tell one of her sons to go and look for Concetta, the little girl.
She went on grumbling, saying that girl was always running off to play, maybe down by the old oak. She complained to her husband that that child was a curse, moving like quicksilver but with her head always someplace else; she couldn’t give her a task because she’d start out and then forget it halfway through, and she was no help in the house, either. Her husband called her names and told her to shut up, and then he went outside to smoke. She — while her son went across the path that led down to the riverbed and the dead oak — went back to stirring the pot of soup with its lard, and onions; her heart hammering in her breast.
While she was waiting she heard, as she did every evening, the padrone’s automobile pass in front of their house. He always sounded his horn twice, because, he said, the little girls liked it so much. It was true that Concetta was drawn by that sound every evening, even though for the last year her mother had forbidden her to run out of the house to greet the padrone. She would go to the window and peep out. And the mother would hear the padrone laughing from inside the cloud of dust raised by his automobile.
Because Concetta — everyone said this, but the padrone said it too often — was a really beautiful child and was going to be a beautiful big girl.
When she heard the boy she’d sent out to look for Concetta come running back screaming, the mother didn’t stop stirring the minestra of onions, and pig fat. But her breath ached in her throat. She heard her son saying something to his father, heard them rush down the three wooden steps that had been worn black as fossil coal. Only after a whole handful of minutes did she hear her husband shouting her name and her daughter’s. Then she left the pot on the fire and ran outside at last.
Her husband was carrying Concetta in his arms, her face bloody, her clothes ripped, drooping like a rag in her father’s calloused hands.
“You listen to me, Cetta,” the mother said the next day after the others had all gone out to work in the fields. “You’re getting to be a big girl now, so you can understand me when I talk to you, just the way you can look in my eyes and understand that I can do what I’m going to say to you now. If you don’t do exactly what I tell you, I’ll kill you with my own hands.” She took a length of rope and tied it around Cetta’s left shoulder. “Stand up,” she ordered, and then pulled the rope down to her crotch, so that the child had to hunch over. Next, she knotted it tightly around her left thigh. “This is a secret between you and me,” she told her. From a drawer she pulled out a loose dress she had sewn from a remnant, with a pattern of faded flowers. The dress hid the rope perfectly. She had thought about what it would have to cover, and sewn it to do just that. “You’re going to tell everyone the fall left you crippled. Everyone, even your brothers,” she explained to the child. “You’ll wear this rope on for a month, to get used to it. After that, I’ll take it off, but you’ll still walk as though you were still wearing it. If you don’t, first I’ll tie you up with it again, and then, if you try to walk straight, I’ll kill you with my own hands. And when the padrone comes by in the evening with his beautiful automobile and honks his horn, you run out to greet him. No, better you already be outside on the road, so he can get a good look at you. Do you understand?”
The little girl nodded.
Then the mother took her daughter’s face in her gnarled hands and gazed at her with love and desperate determination. “Now you won’t have any bastards growing in your belly,” she said.
Before autumn came the padrone had stopped sounding his horn when he drove past the shack, resigned to the idea that Cetta was hopelessly lame. By the beginning of winter, he never dove past their house. He took another road home.
Towards summer the mother told her daughter that she could start to get well. But slowly, so as not to arouse suspicions. Cetta was thirteen now, with a shapely little body. But that year of walking like a cripple had left its mark on her. She never quite managed, not even as an adult, to walk normally. She learned to minimize her limp, but she could never be perfectly straight. Her left breast was smaller than the right one, her left shoulder was lower than the right, and her left thigh was a little bit shorter than the other. As for the leg that had pulled the shoulder down, either it had shrunken or the tendons had hardened, so that she always seemed slightly off balance when she walked.
After the mother told her daughter that she could begin to recover from her false illness, Cetta had tried to walk straight. But sometimes her left leg went to sleep, or it wouldn’t obey her. And to wake it up or make it behave, all Cetta could do was bend down the shoulder that her mother had forced down. And then, when she’d twisted herself into that position, the leg seemed to remember what it was supposed to do and didn’t drag any more. Cetta was out in the field for the grain harvest that day. With her, a short distance away — some of them ahead of her, some of them behind — were her mother and father and her brothers, all of them with such black hair. And also her half-brother, her mother’s son by the padrone. The half-brother who’d never been given a name by his mother or father. Everyone in the family called him the other one. “No bastards growing in your belly,” her mother had told her over and over all that year. She’d made her half-crippled so that the padrone would keep his eyes off her. And at least the padrone had gone on to buzz around another place.
Cetta was damp with sweat. And tired. She was wearing a coarse cotton dress with straps and a long skirt. Her left leg scraped on the mean, sunbaked ground. Now whenever she saw the padrone showing off his fields to a group of his friends, she felt safe. He was walking and gesturing — maybe he was boasting about how many hands he had working for him, thought Cetta, and she stopped with a hand on her hip to look at the group. The padrone’s third wife was there, wearing a straw hat on her head and dress of a pale blue Cetta had never seen before, not even in the sky. There were two other women with the wife, probably wives of the men chatting with the padrone. One of them was young and pretty, the other one was fat — you couldn’t guess how old she might be. The two men with the padrone looked as different from each other as their wives did. One was young and thin, tall and droopy as the stalk of wheat when it bends under the weight of the ripe head. The other one was middle-aged, with a big mustache and old-fashioned sideburns and straw-colored hair. He had big shoulders and a broad, firm chest, like an old prizefighter. He was leaning on a cane. And another piece of wood came down from his right knee, a wooden leg.
“Get back to work, stumpy!” yelled the padrone, when he noticed Cetta watching them, and then he turned towards the two men, laughing with them.
Cetta hunched over and, dragging her numb leg behind her, started working along her row again. After a few steps she glanced toward the padrone again and saw that the man with the wooden leg was standing still, slightly away from the others, staring at her.
After a while, Cetta had worked her way so close to the group that she could hear what they were saying. And she could also hear — unlike them, she knew what was making that sound — the rhythmic clacking they found so strange. She looked out of the corner of her eye and saw the men pushing the harvested wheat aside, until finally, laughing, they saw the source of that unmistakable sound. The three wives came over to look and pretended to be embarrassed, suffocating knowing giggles behind their lace-gloved hands, and then they all turned to leave because it was almost time for dinner.
Only the man with the wooden leg lingered there, looking. He stared at the two turtles copulating with their wrinkled heads in the air and their carapaces knocking against each other, clacking, making that rhythmic tock, tock, tock. The man with the wooden leg gazed at the two animals, then he looked at Cetta, and her dragging leg, and then he looked down at his own artificial one. Cetta noticed that he wore a rabbit’s foot on his watch chain.
All at once he was on top of Cetta. He threw her on the ground, lifted her skirt, ripped her worn underpants down wanting his wooden leg to clack against the farm girl’s maimed limb — while the fat woman kept shouting her husband’s name across the field because now she wanted her dinner; while Cetta’s mother and father and her dark brothers and the other one too all kept on with their work. A few steps away from the two copulating turtles— he took her, in haste and fury, showing her what a man and a woman do when they imitate the beasts.
After the mother had told the daughter she could start getting better, slowly so as not to arouse suspicions, Cetta tried to make up for the year she’d spent being a cripple. After the day of the turtles’ coupling, she found herself pregnant at not quite fourteen, with her belly itself swollen more on the left than on the right, as if it were leaning to the side that had been uselessly crippled.
The baby was startlingly blond. He could have had Norman ancestors except for those eyes — black as pitch, deep and languid — that no blond could have ever expected to possess.
“This one’s going to have a name,” Cetta said to her father, her mother, her dark brothers, and the one called the other one.
And since he was so fair that he looked like the baby Jesus in the crèche, Cetta named her son Natale.
“I’m going to America just as soon as he’s weaned,” Cetta told her mother as she was nursing her son Natale.
“To do what?” muttered the mother without looking up from her sewing.
Cetta didn’t answer.
“You belong to the padrone and his land,” said the mother.
“I’m not a slave,” Cetta protested.
The mother stopped sewing and stood up. She looked at her daughter nursing the family’s new bastard. She shook her head. “You belong to the padrone and the land,” she said again and then went outside.
Cetta looked down at her son. Her dark breast with its darker nipple was startling against Natale’s blond hair. Annoyed, she pulled her breast away. A little drop of milk fell on the floor. She laid her bastard in the rickety cradle that had held her and her brothers, and the other one, too. The baby started to cry. Cetta stared at him fiercely. “We’re going to cry a lot more tears, you and I,” she told him. Then she went out to join her mother.
The Port of Naples, 1909
The port was crowded with ragged poor people. And a few gentlefolk. But very few, and they were only passing through. People like that would be boarding other ships, not this one. Cetta was watching all of them through a dirty porthole in its rusty frame. Most of those poor folk would be staying on land. They weren’t leaving. They would wait for another occasion. They’d try again to come aboard, they would have pawned their few wretched possessions hoping to buy a ticket to America, and in the wait between one ship and the next they’d have dissipated their tiny savings. And so they’d never be able to leave.
But she, Cetta, was leaving.
That was the only thing she thought about while she was looking out through the filthy porthole, listening to baby Natale, now six months old, turning himself in the wicker basket with its strangely hairy wool blanket that the fine lady from whom Cetta had stolen it used to keep her little dog warm. Cetta didn’t think about anything but the long sea voyage, while the sticky liquid she’d first felt when she was raped ran down her thighs. The only thing she thought about was America, while the ship’s captain buttoned up his trousers, satisfied, promising he’d come back in the afternoon and bring her some bread and water. He laughed, telling her they were going to have a good time together. And only when she heard the metal door close from the outside did Cetta turn away from the porthole and clean her thighs with straw from the floor of the hold. It scratched her skin.
She picked up Natale, pulled out a breast, still red from the captain’s clutchings, and gave her nipple to the bastard she had brought with her. Then, after the baby had gone back to sleep in his basket that stank of dog, Cetta curled up in a darker corner and while tears striped her cheeks she thought: They’re salty, just like the sea that separates me from America. They’re a taste of the ocean, and she licked them, trying to smile. And when at last the siren started to blast its wheezy voice over the harbor, announcing that the ship was leaving, Cetta fell asleep, telling herself the tale of a fifteen-year-old girl who ran away from home all alone with her bastard son and set off for the enchanted kingdom.
Ellis Island, 1909
Cetta stood in line with the other immigrants. Exhausted from the voyage and from the captain’s sexual demands, she watched the doctor from the Federal Immigration Office open these wretched people’s eyes and mouths, just as her father used to do with sheep and donkeys. This one would mark a letter with a piece of chalk on a few of their backs, on their clothes. Those with a letter on their backs were shunted off to a pavilion where other doctors were waiting for them. The rest shuffled towards the customs tables. Cetta looked at the policemen who were watching the officials stamp documents. She saw how desperate people became when, having crossed the sea like trapped animals, they were refused entry. But it was as though she hadn’t been with them.
All the others had glimpsed the new land coming closer, but she hadn’t; she’d always stayed closed up in the hold. She’d been afraid Natale might die. And she discovered, in a moment when she was at her weakest and most tired, that she wasn’t sure if that would make her sorry. And so now she held him tightly to her breast, wanting her creature to forgive her for that thought he couldn’t have heard. But she had heard it, and she was ashamed.
Before they disembarked, the captain had told her he would make sure she’d be able to pass through the inspections. And she had scarcely set foot on land, there in the huge room where all the immigrants were shoved together, when he signaled, jerking his head at a little man who looked like a rat on the other side of the wooden barrier that delimited the free zone. America. The rat had long sharp fingernails and a flashy velvet suit. He looked hard at Cetta and at baby Natale, too. To Cetta it seemed that he was looking at each of them in a different way.
The rat glanced over at the captain and slapped his own chest with his hand. To Cetta’s surprise, the captain lifted Natale away and pulled out one of her breasts, showing it off.
Cetta grabbed her son and took him back, lowering her eyes, mortified. But before she did that she saw the rat laugh and nod to the captain. When she looked up again, the rat was standing next to one of the immigration inspectors, talking to him. He held out some money to the inspector and pointed at Cetta.
The captain squeezed Cetta’s culo. “You’re in better hands than mine now,” he told her, chuckling, and then he left.
And Cetta, without even realizing it, felt a sense of desolation as she watched him walk away. As if she could feel any affection for that disgusting man. Or as if that disgusting man were preferable to the void that was facing her. Maybe she shouldn’t have run away from home, maybe she shouldn’t have come to America.
When the line moved imperceptibly forward, Cetta looked again at the customs inspector and saw that now he was beckoning to her. Another man was standing next to the inspector now, not the rat. It was a person with thick eyebrows, tall, with a tweed jacket that looked tight across his broad shoulders. He was perhaps fifty years old, with a long tuft of hair that went from one side of his head to the opposite one, to cover the part of his scalp where the hair didn’t grow. It looked ridiculous. But at the same time he looks alarmingly strong, thought Cetta as she approached them.
The man and the inspector said something to her. Cetta didn’t know what they were saying. And the less she understood, the more they repeated it to her, louder and louder, as if the problem were that she was deaf. As if loudness could translate that unknown language.
During the one-way discussion the rat reappeared. And he started talking loudly, too. Gesticulating. The limp hands with long nails chopped at the air like razors. A ring gleamed on his little finger. The big man grabbed the rat’s lapels, shouted even louder. Then he let go of him, glanced at the inspector and murmured something that seemed even more menacing than whatever he’d said to the rat, because the inspector went pale, and then turned towards the rat. Suddenly he started shouting at him, too. The rat turned on his heel and scuttled away.
Then the big man and the inspector started talking to Cetta in their mysterious language again. Finally they beckoned a short stocky young man over to the table. He looked energetic and sunny and had been waiting in a corner to interpret between two populations who were separated by an ocean.
“What’s your name?” he asked Cetta, with a friendly and open smile that made her feel less alone for the first time since she’d left the ship.
“Cetta. Concetta Luminita.”
The inspector couldn’t understand it, so the young man wrote it on the immigration paper for him. And again he smiled at Cetta. Then he looked at the baby in Cetta’s arms and stroked him. “And what’s your baby’s name?”
“Natale,” he told the inspector, who again couldn’t understand. “Christmas,” the young man explained.
The inspector nodded, satisfied, and wrote: “Christmas Luminita.”
“So what kind a name is that?”
“Mind your own business.”
“If you ask me, you got a nigger name.”
“Do I look like a nigger to you?”
“Hey, you don’t even look wop.”
“Sez you,” and the boys around him hooted.
“You want to be in our gang, then change your fuckin’ name.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
“Hey, no, you go fuck yourself, lousy little prick! Christmas, my ass!”
Christmas Luminita sauntered lazily away, hands in pockets, blond hair tousled, and a faint blond growth just starting to appear above his lips and on his chin. He was just fourteen but his eyes belonged to an adult, like so many children growing up in the airless tenements of the Lower East Side.
“I got my own gang, assholes!” he shouted once he was sure he was too far away for a hurled rock to reach him.
He pretended not to hear the chorus of insults that pursued him as he turned into a filthy unpaved alley. But once he was alone, Christmas unleashed his anger, kicking an overflowing bucket of garbage, there behind a butcher shop. He could smell the sweetish odor of meat. A little, fat, mangy dog, with two bulging red eyes that looked as though they might pop out of their sockets at any minute, shot out of the back door, barking furiously. Christmas crouched down, smiling, and reached out his open hand to the dog.
Accustomed to avoiding kicks, the dog stopped, keeping her distance; and uttered a last yelp, but in a higher key now; sounding surprised. Almost a whimper. She opened her bulging eyes even wider and stretched out her thick neck, pushing her quivering nostrils towards the boy’s hand. Growling softly, she made a couple of timid steps, sniffed at Christmas’ fingertips. Her cropped tail began wagging slowly, with dignity. The boy laughed and scratched her back.
A man in a bloody apron stood in the doorway, a huge knife in his hand. He stared at the dog and the boy. “When she quit barkin’, I think maybe this time they kill her,” he said.
Christmas barely lifted his head, nodded mutely, and went on scratching the dog.
“You gonna catch the mange, kid,” said the man.
Christmas shrugged and kept stroking the dog.
“Sooner or later they kill her,” the butcher went on.
“Who?” asked Christmas.
“Those mascalzoni, hooligans, always comin’ around here. You — you a hooligan too?”
Christmas shook his head, no. His blond forelock tossed in the air. His eyes darkened for an instant, then brightened as he smiled at the dog, who was snuffling with pleasure.
“She’s one ugly dog, eh?” said the man, cleaning the knife blade on his apron.
“Yeah,” said Christmas. “No offense.”
“A guy sold her t’ me ten years ago. He say she pure breed,” said the man, shaking his head. “But whattya gonna do, I real fond a her,” and he turned to go back into his shop.
“I could give her protection,” said Christmas, without thinking.
The butcher turned around and stared at him, curious. A fourteen-year-old kid, skinny, with patches all over his pants and shoes a mile too big for him, covered with mud and horse dung.
“You scared they might kill her, right?” said Christmas, getting to his feet. The dog rubbed against his legs. “You like her. Me, I can protect her.”
“What you talkin’ about, kid?” The butcher burst out laughing.
“Half a dollar a week and I’ll keep your dog safe, I’ll be her protection.”
The big man, huge in his bloody apron, shook his head incredulously. He wanted to get back to work, he didn’t like leaving the shop unsupervised, full of stingy cuts of meat that only a few people in the neighborhood could even afford. But he didn’t go back inside. He gave a quick look into the shop and then stared at the strange boy. “How ya gonna do it? Eh?”
“I’ve got a gang,” said Christmas impulsively. “It’s — people call us …” He hesitated, looking down at the dog, who was still rubbing against his legs. “They call us the Diamond Dogs.”
“I don’t want no gang wars around here, nobody breakin’ my balls!” The man stiffened and looked back into his shop again, but he didn’t leave.
Christmas stuck his hands in his pockets. He moved some dust around with the tip of his shoe. He gave the dog a last caress. “Suit yourself, mister. Only, I heard some guys talkin’ … well, never mind,” and he started to walk away.
“Wait a minute, kid. What you hear?” the butcher stopped him.
“Those kids from down the street,” and Christmas gave a quick glance towards the corner where he could hear the gang he’d just refused, still shouting taunts. “They were sayin’ there was a dog that barks all the time an’ makes a lot of trouble, and …”
“Never mind … Could be they were talkin’ about some other dog.”
The butcher, knife in hand, came down to the middle of the alley where Christmas was standing. He grabbed the boy by the lapel of his threadbare jacket. His hands were huge and strong, a strangler’s hands. Tall, he loomed over Christmas. The dog gave a few worried yips.
“This mangy little dog, she don’t like nobody. But you, yeah, she likes you. Take Pep’s word for it, she likes you,” the butcher snarled, looking into Christmas’ eyes. “Like I say, I’m fond of her.” He was still studying Christmas, peering into his eyes, silently, while a look of wonder softened his features. Wonder, because he didn’t understand what he was about to do. “It’s true, she’s more trouble than a wife,” he went on, looking at the dog, who now was panting, with her tongue hanging out. “But at least I don’t have t’ fuck her!” And he laughed at the joke he’d told who knows how many times. Then he flipped his apron to one side and rummaged in his vest pocket with blood-crusted fingers, shaking his head in disbelief that he was actually doing this, finally pulling out a fifty-cent coin, and putting it in Christmas’ hand. “I must be crazy. Here, look: O.K., I hire you.”
He was still shaking his head. “C’mon, Lilliput,” he said at last to the dog, and went back inside the shop.
As soon as the butcher was out of sight, Christmas looked at the coin. His eyes shone as he spat on the coin and rubbed it with his fingertips. He leaned against the wall across from the butcher shop. And he laughed, not like a grown-up. Not like a kid, either. The same way his blond hair didn’t belong on an Italian and his dark eyes weren’t Irish. A kid with a weird name, who didn’t know who he was supposed to be. “Diamond Dogs,” he said, and laughed with delight.
The first one he asked was Santo Filesi, a gangly kid, all pimples, with frizzy black hair. He lived in their building and they spoke when they ran into each other on the street, but nothing more. He was the same age as Christmas, and in the neighborhood they said he went to school. His father was a longshoreman, short, stocky, with legs twisted by years of lifting heavy things. They said — because the entire neighborhood did was talk about stuff — that he could lift a five hundred pound load with one hand. And because of that, even though he was a good and gentle man, who never got violent even when he was drunk, he was respected; nobody ever tried to provoke him. With a guy who could lift five hundred pounds with one hand, why take chances? Santo’s mother, on the other hand, was lanky like her son, with a long face and even longer front teeth that made her look like a donkey. She had sallow skin, dry knotted hands that were quick to box her son’s ears, so that Santo, whenever his mother gesticulated, flung up his own hands to protect his face. Signora Filesi cleaned the school that Santo supposedly attended.
“Hey, is it true your mother makes a cream t’ put on your pimples?” Christmas asked Santo the morning after he’d been hired to protect Lilliput.
Santo shrunk into his shoulders, blushing, trying to keep on walking.
“Hey, did I hurt your feelings?” Christmas hurried after him. “I ain’t pickin’ on you, honest.”
“You want to be in my gang?” said Christmas.
“What gang?” asked Santo, suspicious.
“Never heard of it.”
“What do you know about gangs?”
“So if you never heard about us, it don’t mean nothin’. ‘Cause, see, you ain’t in touch,” Christmas explained.
Santo looked down again. “Who in it?” he asked shyly.
“It’s better you don’t know,” said Christmas, looking around furtively.
Christmas came close to him, grabbed his arm, and pulled him into a side alley heaped with trash. Then he turned back to peer out at Orchard Street for an instant, as if to make sure they weren’t being followed. At last he spoke quickly, in a soft voice. “’Cause that way you can’t squeal if somebody puts the screws to you.”
“Who’d put screws in me?”
“Oh, fuck, you must be right off the boat! Don’t you know nothin’? What world are you livin’ in? Hey, is it true you go to school?”
Christmas sneaked another look at Orchard Street, put on a worried frown, and jumped backwards, shoving Santo more deeply into the alley, making him crouch behind a pile of garbage. He put a finger to his lips and shook his head. He waited until an ordinary-looking man walked past the mouth of the alley, and then gave a sign of relief. “Shit … did you see him?”
“Listen, do me a favor. Go take a look, see if he’s still buzzin’ around the honey pot.”
“Huh? What honey?”
“That guy. Didn’t you see him?” and Christmas grabbed Santo’s lapel.
“Yeah … I guess so …” said the boy.
“You guess, you guess … And you want to be a Diamond Dog? Maybe I was wrong when I thought …”
“Yeah? You thought what?”
“I thought you was smart. Hey, just do me this one favor and that’s it, I won’t ask anything else. Go see if he’s still hangin’ around or if he already fucked off.”
“Fuck, am I talkin’ to somebody else? He don’t know you. So get your shitty ass movin’.”
Santo climbed out of his reeking hiding place and walked hesitantly towards Orchard Street. He looked around awkwardly, in search of the ordinary-looking man whom he now believed to be a dangerous criminal. When he started back, Christmas saw that he was walking with a surer step. Santo hooked a finger into his belt and said: “He ain’t there.”
“You did fine,” said Christmas, standing up.
Santo smiled shyly.
Christmas gave him a pat on the back. “C’mon, let’s go get an ice-cream soda, after that you can go your way an’ I’ll go mine.”
“You say ice-cream soda?” Santo stared at him wide-eyed.
“Sure, yeah, why not?”
“It cost — it cost a nickel.”
Christmas shrugged, laughing. “So? It’s just money. All it takes is havin’ some, am I right?”
Santo couldn’t believe his ears.
Entering the grimy shop on Cherry Street, Christmas clutched his half-dollar desperately. “Listen,” he told Santo, swinging himself onto a stool, “I already had two sodas today and my stomach feels kind of funny, Let’s split one, ‘cause you ain’t used to it, a whole one might make you sick. Got to take it easy with this stuff.” Strawberry — the soda jerk’s nickname came from the red birthmark that spread across half of his face — brought them a single huge glass with two straws. Christmas tapped his single coin nonchalantly on the counter, feeling inwardly doomed.
For a few minutes neither of the boys spoke. Each of them was glued to his straw, trying to suck up a little more than his own half.
“So, what’s it mean ‘maybe’ you go t’ school?”
“Afternoons, a teacher teach me some grammar and some history on account of my mamma she clean the school. But I ain’t exactly goin’ t’ school, get it?” explained Santo. “Anyways, I don’t care nothin’ about school,” he added meaningfully, hoping to sound like a junior outlaw.
“Don’t be dumb, Santo. You want do somethin’ with your life? You ain’t like your father, you ain’t never gonna lift a ton or whatever it is with one hand, that’s not gonna happen. But if you was t’ learn somethin’ it could help.” He said this without even thinking. “I wish I could do it.”
“Honest?” said Santo, brightening.
“Yeah. But don’t get a swelled head, greenhorn. An’ don’t stick out your chest, it makes you look like a turkey. Hey, I’m just kiddin’,” he added.
“Yeah, sure, I know,” said Santo softly, looking at the empty glass. “You got it all.”
“I can’t complain …”
Santo looked at the floor in silence. A question rose up inside him. “So … now can I be a Diamond Dog?” he finally asked.
Christmas clapped a hand over Santo’s mouth and glanced over at Strawberry, who was dozing in a corner. “Are you nuts? What if somebody was listenin’?”
Santo blushed again.
“I don’t know, kid. I don’t know if I can count on you,” Christmas said softly, looking into Santo’s eyes for a long time. “I have to think about it. This is serious, see?” He read the burning disappointment on Santo’s face. He smiled to himself. “Okay, let’s give it a try, huh? Maybe you can do it, maybe not.”
Santo gave him a sudden hug and squealed with delight.
Christmas pulled away. “Hey, us Diamond Dogs don’t do that girly stuff.”
“Sure, sure, scusami, me, I just … just …” Santo stammered excitedly.
“Never mind, forget it. Time to talk business,” said Christmas, lowering his voice even more and leaning towards the only member of his gang, after another glance at Strawberry. “Is it true your mamma makes a cream t’ put on your pimples?”
“Why? What her pomata got to do with anything?”
“Rule number one: I ask the questions. If you don’t understand right away, you will later. An’ even if you don’t never understand, remember I always got a reason, O.K.?”
“‘Yeah’ what? Does your mamma make a cream for your face? She makes it herself?”
“And it helps?”
Santo nodded again.
“You wouldn’t think it t’ look at you, ’scuse the expression,” said Christmas.
“It really work. My face a lot worse before she make me use it.”
Christmas rubbed his hands. “I believe what you’re sayin’. Now tell me somethin’ else: Would that same cream work on a dog?”
Christmas leaned over to him again. “There’s somebody we’re protectin’. He pays us. But his dog’s got the mange, and if you and me make it better, he gives us more money,” and he clinked a nail against the soda glass.
“It could work,” said Santo. “Sure.”
“O.K.,” said Christmas, getting off the stool. “If you want to be part of Diamond Dogs, then you pay up. Get me a batch of that cream your mamma makes. If it works on the dog, you get t’ be one of us, and you’ll get your part.”
The room was warm and pleasant, with elaborate draperies at the windows, even finer than anything Cetta had seen in the padrone’s house. The man behind the desk was the same one who had picked her out when she came off the ship less than five hours before.
He was about fifty, at first sight ridiculous looking because of the long strands combed across his head from one side to the other to cover his baldness. But at the same time he exuded a disturbing strength. Cetta couldn’t understand what he was saying.
The other man, the one who was standing, could talk to the man with the comb-over and to Cetta, too, in their own languages. He was interpreting everything the man behind the desk said. It was from him — as she followed him into the room a few minutes ago — that Cetta learned that the man with the foolish hair was a lawyer and that he took care of girls like her. “Cute ones like you,” he’d added, winking at her.
The lawyer said something, staring at Cetta, who was holding Christmas — who had just been formally renamed by the immigration clerk — in her arms.
“We can take care of you,” the other man translated, “But the baby could be a problem.”
Cetta clutched Christmas to her breast. She didn’t answer, and she didn’t lower her gaze.
The lawyer looked up at the ceiling and then spoke again.
“How can you work with a baby?” the man translated. “We’ll put him someplace where he can grow up.”
Cetta held Christmas even more tightly against her breast.
The lawyer said something. The interpreter said, “If you squeeze him any harder you’ll kill him, and the problem’s solved,” and he laughed.
The lawyer laughed with him.
Cetta didn’t laugh. She pressed her lips together and frowned without taking her eyes off the man behind the desk, without moving. Except that she placed one hand on her sleeping baby’s blond head; as if to protect him.
Then the lawyer said something that sounded brusque. He pushed his chair back and left the room.
“Now you’ve made him angry,” said the interpreter, and sat on the edge of the desk. “What will you do if the lawyer puts you out in the street and doesn’t help you? Do you know anyone? Not a soul, am I right? And you don’t have a cent. You and your son won’t live through one night, believe me,” he said.
Cetta looked at him in silence, without moving her hand from Christmas’ head.
“Well? Are you mute now?”
“I’ll do whatever you want,” Cetta said suddenly. “But nobody touches my baby.”
The interpreter blew his cigarette smoke upwards. “You’re a stubborn girl,” he said, as he too left the room, leaving the door open.
Cetta was afraid. She tried to distract herself by watching the spirals of smoke floating in the air, rising towards the ceiling with its ornamental plasterwork, more beautiful than anything she ever imagined might exist. She had been afraid right away. Ever since the moment when, going through customs, while the immigration officer was stamping her entry documents, the short swarthy young man with the sunny look, the one who had given Natale his new name had whispered in her ear, “Be careful.” She remembered the young man perfectly; he was the only one who had smiled at her. Cetta had been afraid from the moment the lawyer took her by the arm and led her across the line painted on the floor, the line that was where America began. She’d been afraid when they had made her climb into that huge black automobile, compared to which the padrone’s car was an oxcart. She’d been afraid as she looked at the concrete city rising before her eyes, so huge that everything the padrone owned, including the villa, was a hovel. She’d been afraid of getting lost among the thousands of people thronging the sidewalks. And at that moment, Christmas had laughed. Softly, the way babies do, who knows why. And he had put out one little hand and grabbed her nose and then a lock of her loose hair. And he’d laughed again, he was happy. Unknowing. And Cetta thought, how perfect it would be if he could only talk, if he could only have said ‘mamma.’ For in that very instant Cetta realized that she had nothing. That her baby was her only possession. And that she had to be strong for him, because this little creature was weaker than she was. She should be grateful to him because he was the only one in the world who hadn’t violated her, even though he was the one who, more than any other, had lacerated the place between her legs.
When she heard the loud argument going on outside the room Cetta turned her head. In the doorway stood an unshaven man with huge shoulders and a dead cigar between his lips. He was perhaps thirty, ugly, with large blackened hands, and a boxer’s crushed nose. He was mechanically scratching his right earlobe. He wore a holstered pistol over his heart. There was a red stain on his shirt. It could have been blood, but Cetta thought it was sugo, tomato sauce. The man was looking at her.
The argument stopped as the lawyer came back in, followed by the interpreter. The man with the tomato-stained shirt waited in the doorway while the other two walked past him, but he stayed there, watching.
The lawyer said something without looking at Cetta’s face.
“Final offer,” said the interpreter. “You work for us, we’ll put the boy in a place where they’ll take care of him, and you can see him on Saturdays and Sunday mornings.”
“No,” said Cetta.
The lawyer shouted and gestured at the interpreter to throw her out. Then he threw the immigration papers at her. They rustled in the air, and slid across the carpeted floor.
The interpreter pulled at her arm, making her stand.
And then the man in the doorway said something. His voice rumbled like thunder, low as a belch, its deep vibrations filled the room. He said only a few words.
The lawyer shook his head, then shrugged and said, “Okay.”
Then the man stopped scratching his earlobe with his black fingers, came into the room, picked up her immigration papers from the floor, glanced briefly at them, and in his ogre’s voice, without expression, he said. “Cetta.”
The interpreter let go of Cetta’s arm and took a step backwards. The man jerked his chin at Cetta and left the room without saying a word to the other two. Cetta followed him, watched him pick up a rumpled jacket and put it on. It was too tight for him everywhere, across the shoulders, across his chest. He didn’t button it. Cetta thought that he wouldn’t be able to, even if he tried. Again he beckoned to her and left the apartment, with Cetta and Christmas following.
When they reached the street the man got into a car that had two bullet holes in the mudguard. He reached across from the other side and opened the door, slapping the seat to indicate that Cetta should sit there. Cetta got in and he started off. He drove without ever speaking, without ever looking at her, as if he were alone. After about ten minutes he pulled up to the sidewalk and got out. And again he gestured at Cetta to follow him, pushing through a noisy crowd of grimy people dressed in rags. They went down a few steps to a partially underground corridor with doors on either side.
They came to the end of the dark and foul-smelling passageway where, before opening the door in front of them, he picked up a mattress that was leaning vertically against the wall. Then he went inside.
The room — for there was only one room — looked like many others that Cetta knew. Rooms without windows. Cords stretched from one wall to the other, next to the coal stove, with clothes hung up to dry, many of them patched. A curtain that didn’t quite hide the big bed. A rickety cook stove, its hood funneling smoke to the outside through two rusty pipes. Two chamber pots in a corner. An old cupboard missing a door and with one injured leg, under which — to make it level — a block of wood had been placed. A square table and three chairs. A sink and some chipped enamel pots.
Two old people were sitting on the chairs. A man and a woman. He was thin, she was plump. Both of them very short. They turned their wrinkled faces towards the door, looking worried. A lifetime of fear showed in their eyes. But then, seeing the man, they smiled. The old man showed his empty gums, and then put a hand in front of his mouth. The old woman laughed, slapped her thigh, and stood up to embrace the man. The old man, shuffling, went behind the curtain that masked the bed. There was a tiny clattering sound, and when he emerged he was forcing yellowed dentures into his mouth.
The old couple seemed happy to see the ugly man with black hands, who meanwhile had laid the mattress down in a corner of the room. Then, after they’d heard him say something in that voice that shook the air, the old woman had dipped a rag in water and begun to clean the sugo off the man’s shirt, ignoring his protests. And only after that did she look at Cetta. And nodded her head, yes.
Before the man left, he reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out a banknote, then handed it to the old woman. She kissed his blackened hand. The old man stared at the floor, looking mortified. The man noticed, squeezed his shoulder, and said something that made the old man smile. Then the man turned to Cetta and gave her the immigration papers. Finally, as he was leaving, he pointed at her and said something to the old couple. Then he disappeared out the door.
“What’s your name?” the old woman asked, in Cetta’s own language, as soon as they were alone.
“And the baby?”
“Natale. But this is his name now,” said Cetta, thrusting the document at her.
The old woman took it and handed it to her husband.
“Christmas,” said the old man.
“An American name,” said Cetta, with a proud smile.
The old woman fumbled at her chin thoughtfully, and then turned to her husband. “It doesn't sound like an Italian name. Maybe it’s an Irish name, or a negro name.”
The old man stared at Cetta, who didn’t react. “Don’t you know what a negro is?” he asked her.
Cetta shook her head “No.”
“They’re people who are … negro,” the old woman explained in Italian, moving a hand over her own face.
“Are they Americans?” asked Cetta.
The old woman turned to her husband. He nodded.
“Yes,” said the old woman.
“Then my son has a new American name,” said Cetta, satisfied.
The old woman looked perplexed, shrugged her shoulders, and turned back towards her husband.
“But at least you have to learn his name,” said the old man.
“Oh my, yes,” the old wife confirmed.
“You can’t make people read that piece of paper every time,” said her husband.
“Goodness, no,” said the old woman, with an energetic shake of her head.
“And when he’s bigger, you’ll have to say his name when you talk to him, otherwise he won’t learn it either,” the old man went on.
“That’s true,” said the old woman.
Cetta looked at them, bewildered. “Teach me how to say it,” she said at last.
“Christmas,” the old man said.
“CREESS … mahss,” the old woman pronounced.
“Christmas,” Cetta repeated.
“Good girl!” the two old people cried.
All three of them remained standing in silence, not knowing what to do next.
Finally the old woman muttered something in her husband’s ear and went to the kitchen stove. She put in some scraps of wood and lit the stove with a twist of newspaper.
“She’s making something to eat,” the old man explained.
Cetta smiled. She liked these two old people.
“Sal said he’d come by and get you tomorrow,” the old man said, looking down, embarrassed.
So the big ugly man’s name is Sal, thought Cetta.
“Sal’s a good man,” the old man went on. “Don’t judge him by the way he looks. If it weren’t for Sal, we’d be dead.”
“That’s right: Dead of starvation and no coffin to bury us,” the old woman nodded, stirring a pot of thick dark tomato sugo with bits of sausage bobbing in it. The odor of garlic filled the room.
“He pays our rent,” said the old man, and Cetta thought he was about to blush.
“Ask her,” the old woman said, without turning.
Obediently the old man asked, “Does your son have a father?”
“No,” Cetta answered without hesitation.
“No? Well … good … good,” muttered the old man, as if trying to gain time for something.
“Ask her,” said the old woman again.
“Yes, yes, I’m asking her now …” he grumbled. He turned towards Cetta with a sheepish grin. “Were you a whore in Italy, too?”
Cetta knew what that word meant. She’d heard her mother say it a hundred times, whenever her father came home late on a Saturday night. Whores were women who went to bed with men.
“Yes,” she answered.
They ate and went to bed. Cetta lay down on the mattress, still in her clothes, without blanket. The old people told her that Sal would bring everything she needed tomorrow.
I don’t even know your names, thought Cetta in the middle of the night, listening to them snore.
“Cock. Say it.”
The red-haired woman in her fifties, vividly made up, sitting on a velvet divan, turned to a coarse-looking girl of twenty, sprawled awkwardly on an armchair — it, too, covered in velvet — looking bored. She was half-naked, playing with the lace on the transparent dressing gown through which a satin bodice, the only other thing she was wearing, peeped. The red-haired woman said a few quick words, waving a hand at Cetta. The semi-naked girl spoke in Italian: “Ma’am says these are the tools of your trade. You don’t need much else for now. Say the whole thing again.”
Cetta, standing in the parlor that seemed elegant and mysterious, was ashamed of her shabby clothes. “Cock,” she began in the hostile language she couldn’t understand, “pussy … ass … mout’.”
“Good, you’re a fast learner,” said the young prostitute.
The red-haired woman nodded. She cleared her throat and continued the lesson in American: “Do you want a blow job?”
“Du … iu … uan … ta … boh … giabb?”
“Blow job!” shouted the redhead.
“Bloh … giabb. Blow job.”
“Okay. Stick it in me.”
“Steek eet een mi …”
“Come on, big boy, harder, harder oh yeah, like that.”
“Co moan beeg boy, ardor, ardor, ieh, laik a dat?”
The red-haired madam stood up. She grumbled something at the prostitute who was acting as interpreter and then left the room, after stroking Cetta’s face with an unexpected tenderness, warm and melancholy at the same time. Cetta watched her go, admiring the dress. Only a fine lady could have a dress like that, Cetta thought.
“Come on,” said the young whore, enunciating carefully.
“Co moan, beeg boy, ardor –” Cetta began.
The prostitute laughed. “Come on.”
“Come … ahn,” Cetta echoed.
“Good,” and she took Cetta’s arm and led her through the dark rooms of the huge apartment that seemed like a palace to her. “Has Sal tasted you yet?” the young whore asked, with a sly smile.
“Taste me?” Cetta asked.
The prostitute laughed. “I guess not. If he had, you’d be all bright-eyed and purring, and you wouldn’t have to ask.”
“You can’t talk about heaven till you’ve been there,” and the prostitute laughed again.
They came into a plain white-painted room, luminous compared to the others. Cetta saw wonderful dresses hanging along the walls. At the center of the room were an ironing board and flatiron. A fat old woman with a mean expression greeted them with a distracted nod. The prostitute said something to her that Cetta didn’t understand. The old woman came over to Cetta and stretched her arms out, looking closely at her; she cupped her breasts and buttocks and measured around her hips. Next she went to a chest of drawers, rummaged in it, took out a black bustier, and threw it roughly at Cetta. She spoke again.
“She says to take off your clothes and try it on,” the prostitute translated. “Don’t mind her. She’s an old fatty who couldn’t live the life because she was too ugly, and the lack of cock made her mean.”
“Look out, I know what you’re saying,” said the fat woman, speaking Cetta’s language. “I’m Italian, too.”
“You’re still a mean bitch,” said the prostitute.
Cetta laughed. But as soon as the old woman gave her a fierce glare from her wicked red eyes, she looked down and began to undress. The prostitute helped her hook up the bustier. Cetta felt strange. Stripping naked humiliated her, but trying on the lacy bustier, which seemed to her like something an elegant lady would wear, made her feel important. Part of her was excited, part of her was frightened.
The prostitute noticed. “Look in the mirror,” she said.
Cetta moved toward the mirror. But suddenly her left leg went to sleep. Cetta broke into a sweat. She dragged the leg.
“Are you lame?” asked the prostitute.
“No, no …” Cetta could see the panic in her own eyes. “I … twisted something …”
Right at that moment the fat woman hurled a dress at her. Blue satin, with a long slit in the skirt to show off her legs and a low neckline trimmed with a black lace frill. “Try that, whore,” she said.
Cetta slipped into it and then looked in the mirror again. She began to weep, because she didn’t recognize herself. She wept for gratitude to the American earth that was going to make all her dreams come true. That would make her into a lady.
“O.K., come on, now you have to learn the business,” the prostitute said.
They came out of the sewing room without saying goodbye to the fat woman, and went into a tiny stuffy room. The prostitute opened a peephole and put her eye against it.
She beckoned Cetta over and made her look. “There you go,” she said, “That’s a blow job.” Cetta squinted through the little hole, and learned.
She spent the whole day spying on her colleagues and their clients. Late that night, Sal came back to take her home. As he was driving, never speaking, Cetta glanced over at him — carefully, so that he wouldn’t notice — and wondered about what the prostitute had said. At last the car pulled up in front of the steps that led down to the basement apartment and Cetta, as she climbed out of the car, turned back to look and the big ugly man who tasted girls. But Sal just kept staring straight ahead.
The two old people were asleep when Cetta came silently into the room. Christmas was sleeping too, between them. Cetta took him delicately in her arms.
“He ate and he shat,” murmured the old woman, opening an eye. “Everything’s fine.”
Cetta smiled and went towards her mattress. There were metal springs under it now. And a blanket, sheets and a pillow.
“Sal thought of everything,” the old woman whispered, sitting up and making the bedsprings squeak.
“Go to sleep,” grumbled her husband.
Cetta placed Christmas on the blanket and felt how soft it was. She turned to the old woman who still sat watching. She went over and hugged her silently. And the old lady hugged her back, smoothing her hair.
“Go to bed now, you’re tired,” she said.
“Go to sleep,” moaned the husband.
Cetta and the old woman laughed softly.
“What are your names?” Cetta whispered.
“I’m Tonia, he’s Vito. Tonia and Vito Fraina.”
“And at night, we like to sleep,” came the husband’s muffled voice.
Cetta and Tonia laughed again. Then Tonia slapped her husband’s rump.
And the two women laughed again.
“Oooh, what fun,” said the old man and pulled the covers over his head.
Then Tonia held Cetta’s face between her hands and looked silently at her. She made a little sign of the cross on her forehead with her thumb and told her, “May God bless you.” And then she kissed her brow.
How beautiful, thought Cetta. She went back to her bed, undressed and got under the covers with Christmas. And very slowly, so that she wouldn’t wake him, she made the sign of the cross on his forehead.
“Your Christmas is a big beautiful baby. He’ll be a handsome man …” said Tonia.
“Basta!” roared Vito. “Enough! Can’t a man get some sleep?”
Christmas woke up and began to cry.
“There, you old fool, you’ve done it,” growled Tonia. “Are you satisfied now? Sweet dreams.”
Cetta soothed Christmas, holding him in her arms and rocking him. She laughed to herself. And all at once she saw her mother’s face, and her father’s and brothers’ too, even the other one’s; all her family — and she realized that this was the first time she had thought of them. But no other thoughts came into her mind. And then she, too, fell asleep.
The next day — after spending a whole morning and a good part of the early afternoon getting to know Tonia and Vito — Cetta prepared to leave for her work. When Sal came to pick her up, she’d been ready for half an hour. She entrusted Christmas to the old couple and silently followed the ugly man with blackened hands, this man who was taking care of her. She came outside to the car with the two bullet holes in the mudguard; she sat in her place and waited for Sal to turn on the motor and leave. In the course of the morning she had asked Tonia to teach her two words in the language she still didn’t know. Two words that she would never hear at the brothel.
“Why?” she asked Sal. That was the first word she’d asked Tonia to teach her.
Sal said something in his deep voice, briefly, without taking his eyes off the road.
Cetta didn’t understand anything he said. She smiled and pronounced the second word she’d wanted to learn: “Sanka you.”
After that neither Sal nor Cetta spoke again. Sal stopped the car in front of the whorehouse door, reached across the front seat, and opened Cetta’s door. He jerked his head to the right, indicating that she should get out of the car. As soon as she was on the sidewalk, Sal put it in gear and drove away.
That evening, Cetta, who was fifteen years old, gave her first blowjob.
By the end of her first month there, she’d learned all there was to know about the profession. Expanding her vocabulary enough to do things outside the brothel, however, took another five months.
Every afternoon and every night Sal brought her from the Fraina’s basement home to the whorehouse and back again. The other girls slept there, in one large room. But babies couldn’t stay there. Whenever one of the girls had one in her belly, a doctor came and took it out with tools. The whores’ society didn’t permit procreation, it was one of the rules that Sal enforced.
But for Cetta he’d made an exception.
“Why?” she asked one morning in the car, six months after the first time, but this time ready to understand his answer.
Sal’s deep voice rumbled across the seat, overcoming the noise of the engine. Brief, like the first time. “Mind your own fuckin’ business.”
And, as before, but this time after a much longer pause, Cetta told him, “Thank you.” Then she began to laugh to herself. But out of the corner of her eye she thought she could see Sal’s ugly, grave face soften a little. And his lips had moved almost imperceptibly into something like a smile.
New Jersey-Manhattan, 1922
Ruth was thirteen years old, and she wasn’t allowed to go out in the evening. But the house in the country, where she spent the weekends, was too sad and gloomy, thought Ruth. A big white mansion, with handsome columns framing the entrance, built fifty years ago by her father’s own father, Grandpa Saul, who’d founded the family business.
A big white house, with a long driveway that wound through the park, to the main gate. And dark furniture, always polished and gleaming. Soft rugs, some of them American, others Chinese, covering the marble or oak floors. Antique paintings, by artists from everywhere in the world, hung against the tapestried walls. Silver from Europe, and the Orient. And mirrors — mirrors everywhere — reflecting what Ruth saw as only a big, rich, gloomy house.
Not even the servants knew how to smile. Not even when etiquette required that they do it, as when they encountered a member of the Isaacson family, not even then could they manage to smile. They would barely lift the corners of their mouths, lower their heads, and — looking down — go on with their tasks. Not even with Ruth, a girl with dark curly hair and fair skin, with dainty schoolgirl dresses and a delight in being thirteen years old; no, they still couldn’t smile.
No one managed to smile, not in that house and not in the apartment on Park Avenue where they normally lived; not since the curfew that had been imposed because of her mother, Sarah Rubenstein Isaacson, or, rather, because of what people said about her. Had she really had a murky affair with a young man from the Eighty-Sixth Street Synagogue? She, a woman of forty; he a twenty-three-year old? He was brilliant, intelligent, handsome, destined to become a rabbi. At least that was his version of the story.
Ruth’s father had been sickened by the rumors and so had her mother. The twenty-three-year-old’s destiny as the community’s youngest rabbi had now been jeopardized. He had no inclination to be sickened, so he promptly married a nice Jewish girl his own age; herself the daughter of a rabbi. Ruth’s father, Philip, had never doubted his wife, not even for an instant, nor had he ever blamed her for the cruel gossip. But the poison of calumny had crushed him. Ruth’s mother knew she had her husband’s complete trust, but she no longer had the courage to show off her jewels and gowns at the opera, at the charity balls organized by the Jewish community, at the open-air concerts patronized by the mayor. She feared being stabbed in the back by stifled laughter. She feared being pointed out as an adulteress, a woman who’d gone to bed with a boy young enough to be her son. Her narrow elegant shoulders, once so proudly lifted, weren’t strong enough to bear the weight of calumny.
“You let a fart knock you down, a nothing,” Grandfather Saul repeated from deep in his armchair almost every evening after dinner, rubbing the bridge of his long thin nose — there where his spectacles had pinched it.
And his son and daughter-in-law cast down their eyes, never speaking. They hadn’t answered him the first time he’d said those words and now there was no reason to try.
No one ever smiled in the great house that Ruth found so gloomy. The mirrors no longer reflected dozens of guests dancing in the ballroom. No little lanterns lit up the surrounding park for Sunday evening parties any more.
No gifted amateurs or professional musicians sat at the grand piano now, improvising, leavening the evenings among friends. It was as if the windows, the front door, and the gate at the end of the driveway had all been sealed.
And all because of a fart.
Ruth was thirteen and she couldn’t leave the house in the evening. But the house was so sad and lifeless, she thought. She couldn’t stop thinking about it. Not one single person ever smiled at her. Except for the gardener, a lad of nineteen who had been looking after the terraces of the Park Avenue apartment for a few months. Now that he’d bought a little van, he also came to work at the New Jersey estate. He was always laughing. Ruth noticed him right away. Not because he was handsome, or intelligent, or young; not because there was anything special about his physique or his eyes. Only because of the laugh that came bursting out of his throat. She wasn’t attracted to him but she was charmed by that laughter, which exploded without anyone understanding why, violating, and profaning the grim atmosphere of the house. He might be trimming the ivy on the garage and suddenly, unexpectedly, he might see his own distorted reflection in the polished chrome fender of one of the household’s cars and then he’d start laughing. He laughed when Ruth brought him a glass of lemonade halfway through the hot afternoon, as if lemonade were something witty. And he laughed — quietly, without being noticed — when her bad-tempered Grandfather Saul scolded him about something. And he laughed when the cook, who, old as she was, still couldn’t make a roast turkey as good as his mother’s. He laughed at the unexpected rustle of spring raindrops and at the sun shining out of puddles after the rain; at a flower born crooked or a clump of grass caught in the mower’s wheel; at a blackbird hopping on the gravel walk with a worm in its beak; at a frog croaking from the pond in the park; at an oddly shaped cloud or the butler’s scanty whiskers; at the maid’s vast buttocks and the sagging breasts of the woman who came every day to help with the laundry.
He laughed at everything and his name was Bill.
One day he said to Ruth, “Hey, what if you and me was t’ go out some evenin’ and have a few laughs?”
And so, that night after dinner — even though she was only thirteen and they’d never let her go out if she asked them, let alone with the gardener — Ruth pretended to go up to her room, leaving her parents and grandfather to their lugubrious and silent evening, and she slipped down to the laundry room unseen. From there she went out the service entrance where Bill was waiting for her, laughing. And she, laughing too, because she was thirteen, spoiled, and bored with her life, climbed into Bill’s van.
“I got a car too, see?” he said proudly.
“Yes,” said Ruth and she laughed, not knowing why. Perhaps just because she was with Bill, someone who laughed all the time.
“Not many folks got a car,” said Bill.
“Really?” she said, not very interested.
“Dumb, huh? You think everybody’s rich like your grandpa and your daddy? What, a van ain’t good enough for you?” Bill said in a rough voice, his eyes like two slits, dark in the dark night. But then he laughed, in his light funny way, and Ruth shook off the shiver that had left goose bumps on her pale arms.
Bill changed gears noisily, stepped on the gas and the van rocked along the road that led to the city. “Now we’re goin’ t’ see the real world,” he said, still laughing.
And Ruth laughed with him, excited at such an adventure, twisting the emerald ring she’d borrowed from her mother without asking. She’d thought it would make her feel pretty and more grown up when she went out with Bill. It was only now that she realized that her mother’s fingers were slimmer than hers, and that the ring was stuck.
“See that?” Bill pulled the van to the side of the road and turned off the engine, after they’d been driving for half an hour. “A speakeasy. We can get a drink in there, we can dance.” He pointed to a smoky-looking bar at the corner of two dark streets, where men and women were going in and out, staggering, arm in arm. ”Bring any money?” he asked the young girl.
“But alcohol’s against the law,” said Ruth.
“Not in here, it ain’t” said Bill. “Like I said, the real world. You got money or not?”
“Yes,” said Ruth, pulling two ten dollar bills out of her purse, immediately forgetting about the ring. She had eyes only for the bar, where everyone was laughing like Bill. Where life looked so different from the chill and silent domain she knew.
“Twenty bucks?” said Bill, holding the two banknotes up to his eyes, “Shit, twenty bucks!”
“I took it out of papa’s pocket,” Ruth told him, laughing.
Bill laughed too and took Ruth’s pretty face in both his hands, scraping her delicate skin with the money and his hands callused from gardening. Laughing, he pulled her face towards his and kissed her lips. Then he let go of her, and went back to contemplating the money. “Shit, twenty bucks,” he said. “You know how much I had t’ pay for this broken down van? You got any idea? No? Forty bucks. A fortune. And you, you stick a hand in daddy’s pants pocket and pull out half of it, like it was nothin’.” He laughed loudly, louder than usual. “Twenty bucks for some contraband booze,” and he laughed again, but it sounded strange.
“Don’t do that again,” said Ruth, in a serious voice.
“You mustn’t kiss me.”
Bill looked at her in silence, with a dark heavy gaze that contained not the slightest trace of all the laughter he had dispensed until that moment. “Get out,” he said, opening his own door. He came around the van, grabbed Ruth’s arm roughly and shoved her along to the speakeasy without saying another word to her. He tried to buy a bottle of whiskey but they didn’t have enough cash to make change for a twenty. So he made them give him one on credit — they knew him there — and, after listening to one filthy song, he laughed and dragged Ruth back to the van.
“That place was a morgue,” he said smiling, starting the engine again, with the bottle tucked between his legs. “I know some better ones.”
“Maybe I’d better go home,” Ruth suggested timidly.
Bill braked in the middle of the street. “What, ain’t you havin’ a good time with me?” he asked her, with the same dark look he’d had a while before. The same look he’d always seen on his father’s face whenever he felt like belting him for no reason, just because he was drunk. But then he smiled, once more becoming the Bill Ruth knew. He stroked her worried face — the face of a little girl who’s afraid she’s done something wrong — and he said, “We’re gonna have a nice time, I promise,” and he smiled at her again, sweetly. “An’ I promise I won’t kiss ya.”
“Cross my heart,” he said, putting his hand on heart with a solemn gesture. And he laughed the way he always did.
For the second time, Ruth forgot the unpleasant feeling she’d had, and laughed with him.
Bill kept drinking from the bottle while he drove. He offered it to Ruth. She put it to her lips, and hardly had one drop slipped down her throat than she began to cough. And the more she coughed, the more she felt like laughing. Bill laughed with her, and drank, and drank, until the bottle was empty, and flew out the window.
“There’s nothing here,” said Ruth, wiping the tears she’d wept from coughing, and laughing so hard, looking around when Bill stopped the van.
“Here we are,” said Bill. And once more he had that heavy look. Dark, dark as the deserted street where they’d stopped.
“You promised not to kiss me,” said Ruth.
“Yeah, right, I swore to it,” said Bill. “Me, I always do what I say I’m gonna do,” and he thrust a hand between Ruth’s legs, lifting her skirt and ripping off her thick cotton panties, a little girl’s underpants. Ruth tried to push him away but Bill punched a fist into her face. He did it again, and then a third time.
Ruth heard the sound of bones breaking in her mouth and in her nose. And then nothing. When she opened her eyes she was lying in the back of the van. Bill was over her, panting; pushing something hot between her legs. And as he pushed he kept repeating, laughing: “See? I ain’t kissin’ ya. Bitch, didja notice? Not one fuckin’ kiss!”
At last Ruth felt a new, sticky, hotness and she saw Bill arching his back, his mouth gaping. As he pulled out, he punched her face again. “Shitty Jew,” he said. “Shitty Jew, shitty Jew, shitty Jew,” he said it once for every button he was doing up on his pants. Then he took her hand and tried to pull off the ring with its big emerald. “I been lookin’ at this all night, bitch,” he growled. But the ring wouldn’t come off. He spat on the finger and pulled it hard, cursing. He stood up then, and began kicking her. In the ribs, in the belly, in the face. A fist to her jaw. Now he knelt on her chest, immobilizing her, and leaned forward, rummaging in a canvas sack. “The real world, right? That’s what you want t’ see?” He pulled a pair of pruning shears out of the sack, the ones he used to trim the roses. He opened the sharp blades and set them at the base of Ruth’s ring finger. “Well, Jewgirl, here comes the real world,” and he squeezed the shears.
A crunch of bone, like a dry branch cracking.
Bill twisted the ring off and flung the finger away.
Ruth was still screaming when he dumped her out of the van.
Bill started the engine and drove away. Now, once more, he gave a light peal of laughter.
“Mamma! Mamma!” Christmas ran into the little apartment on the first floor of 320 Monroe Street, where they’d been living for five years, ever since they’d left the windowless basement apartment where he’d grown up. “Mamma!” he cried out again, as a lost child might.
It was shortly after dawn.
Cetta had worked late, as she did every night. She was twenty-eight years old now and — given her age — she had changed professions. But not her schedule. She felt her son’s voice filter into her sleep. She turned over in bed, pushed her head under the pillow, pressing it over her ears, so as not to abandon the fantastic dream she was immersed in, a dream that had so little resemblance to her life.
“Mamma!” His voice was full of desperate urgency. “Mamma, wake up, please!”
Cetta opened her eyes in the dim little room.
“Mamma, come …”
Cetta got out of the bed that almost completely filled the room, together with an old dresser and a row of hooks against the wall. Christmas backed away, with his frightened eyes fixed on his mother, who was rubbing her own eyes. They went through the kitchen, where Christmas’ cot was against a half-wall near the stove. On their right was the entry door, which gave directly into the kitchen. Cetta closed it.
“What you want, this time of night? What time is it?”
Christmas didn’t answer; he flung his arms wide and hung his head.
The faint light in the room came from the window of the room that Cetta pompously called the parlor, a square room ten feet by ten feet. And in that feeble light Cetta saw that her son’s shirt was stained with blood.
“What they do to you?” she gasped, her eyes wide, suddenly wide-awake. She flung herself on her son, pressing her hand where she saw blood.
“No, Mamma — look here, Mamma …” Christmas said softly, turning towards the sofa in the parlor.
Cetta saw a pimply adolescent, with a face as frightened as her son’s, standing by the window. A girl was lying face down on the sofa. She had black curly hair and wore a white dress with blue-stripes on the sleeves and hem. All covered with blood.
“What you do to her?” cried Cetta, grabbing her son.
“Mamma …” Christmas’ eyes were full of tears. That he held back. “Mamma, just look at her.”
Cetta came over to the girl, took her by the shoulders, and turned her over. She let go of her for a second, stricken with horror. The girl didn’t have eyes, just two bruised lumps of dark and swollen flesh. Her upper lip was ripped. Two hard dark crusts of blood came out of her nose. She was barely breathing. Cetta turned to look at the other boy and then at her son.
“Mamma, we found her like that.” The childish tremor in Christmas’ voice was still there. “We didn’t know what to do, so I brought her here …”
“Holy Virgin,” said Cetta, turning her gaze to the girl again.
“Will she die?” Christmas asked softly.
“Girl, you can hear me?” said Cetta, putting her arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Bring glass of water,” she told her son. “No, whiskey. Under my bed …”
The girl seemed agitated, feebly pulling away.
“Be good, be good … hurry up, Christmas!”
Christmas ran to his mother’s cramped room and pulled a bottle of cheap whiskey out from under the bed. It was still half-full, purchased from an old lady in the building who knew some Mafia guys.
Seeing the bottle, or perhaps intuiting it through her bruised eyes, the girl grew more agitated.
“Be good,” said Cetta, uncorking the bottle.
The girl whimpered, tried to pull away; it seemed that she wanted to weep, but the tears were imprisoned behind her swollen empurpled eyelids. Slowly she lifted up her hand and showed it to Cetta. It was covered with blood. Her finger had been cut off neatly, above the first knuckle.
Cetta’s mouth opened, she covered her mouth, then her eyes with her hand, and then she embraced the girl, holding her gently against her breast. At last she picked up the bottle with decisiveness. “I have to hurt you, girl. Hurt you bad,” she said in a grave firm voice, and she poured whiskey on the stub of the finger.
The girl screamed. As her mouth opened, the scab on her upper lip broke and it began to bleed again.
Cetta looked lower down, where the skirt was pulled up. She saw more blood inside her thighs. With great gentleness, Cetta held the girl’s bloody face between her hands.
“I know what happen to you,” she said. “Keep still.”
And when she stood up from the divan, in her look there was a sorrow and hatred that she thought she had buried so deeply that she would never be able to exhume them. Her eyes were the eyes of the little girl from the Aspromonte, the child she had once been — raped and deflowered in a field of wheat — and about whom she had wanted to forget everything except Christmas. And her eyes were those of the stowaway passenger who had bartered passage to America for two weeks of rape by the ship’s captain. Now, suddenly, she could recall his face and his filthy hands with awful clarity. Cetta looked out with great ferocity through the eyes of a little girl.
She grabbed Christmas’ arm, and hustled him into her bedroom. She shut the door. Then she pointed her finger at his face. “You ever hurt a woman, then you not my son any more. I cut off your cock with my own hands and I slit you t’roat. And if I die, I come back from Hell to make you life a bad dream that never stop. You remember that always,” she said with such dark fury that Christmas was frightened.
She opened the door and went back to the parlor. “What you name, girl?” she asked.
Ruth, Christmas repeated to himself, in a kind of stupor.
“God bless you, Ruth,” and she made the sign of the cross on the girl’s forehead. “My son, he take you to hospital now.” She flung a blanket at Christmas. “Don’t let her get cold. Cover her up, so nobody see, specially down here. Doctor can see, nobody else.” She smoothed his blond forelock and kissed him on the cheek. “Go on, bambino mio.” She pulled him to her again and looked into his eyes. “Leave her at the hospital and come away, nobody believe people like us,” she told him in a serious and worried voice. At last she turned away from everyone and closed herself in her room. She curled up in her bed and pulled the pillow over her head again, trying not to hear the gasps of the men who had raped her so long ago.
Christmas carefully descended the narrow stairs of Sal Tropea’s tenement with Ruth in his arms, wrapped in the blanket, with Santo following.
“Do you want I should carry her for a while?” Santo offered after they’d gone several blocks. He reached out his arms to take the girl.
But Christmas, not knowing why, refused. Immediately, instinctively. “No, I found her,” he said. As if she were a treasure. And he kept walking. In his head he kept repeating “Ruth, Ruth,” as if that name had a special meaning.
A few blocks further on, Santo said worriedly, “You mother she say leave her in front of hospital …”
“I know,” gasped Christmas.
“… or else we could get in trouble …”
“Maybe somebody think we—”
“I know!” shouted Christmas.
“I’m sorry,” said Christmas to the girl, softly, confidingly, as if he’d known her forever. “Move her hair out of her face,” he told Santo. “But be gentle.”
He began to walk again. The sidewalks were crowded with working people on their way to jobs; young hoodlums who were already loitering; street vendors offering their trashy wares; grimy boys who were shouting out the headlines of the early morning papers. They turned to look at the strange trio, with the curiosity of their natures and the detachment of their experience. A quick glance before they looked away again.
Christmas felt his arms growing stiff. He was sweating. He grimaced with effort, his lips parted and tight, teeth clenched, eyebrows meeting in a frown, and his gaze fixed on his destination, which by now was in sight.
“Lay her on the steps and then we go,” said Santo.
“Yeah, yeah …”
When he reached the first step, Christmas was afraid he was going to drop her. He didn’t have any strength left in his arms. “We’re here …, Ruth,” he murmured to her, bending his face close to hers and pronouncing her name with a special emotion, as if it meant something beyond itself.
Ruth smiled faintly. She tried to open her eyes.
Christmas thought they were green, like two emeralds, in the middle of all that clotted blood. And he thought he could see something inside them that no one else was able to see.
“Aw, put her down, come on, we gotta get outa here,” Santo pleaded.
But Christmas wasn’t listening. He was looking at the girl who was looking at him and trying to smile. The girl with emerald green eyes. “My name’s Christmas,” he told her and he let Ruth look into his own black eyes. He wanted to show her what he’d never let anyone else see.
Ruth opened her mouth slightly, as if she wanted to speak, but no words came. She moved her hand out from under the blanket and pressed it against his chest.
Christmas could feel the emptiness where her finger had been amputated. Again his eyes filled with tears. But he smiled. “It’s okay, Ruth, we’re here.”
“Oh shit, set her down and run for it!” moaned Santo.
“And now why would ye be runnin’?” asked a voice behind them.
The cop put a whistle to his lips and blew into it, hard, seizing Santo’s arm.
Christmas climbed the last steps as two nurses hurried out of the hospital. They tried to take the girl, but Christmas seemed to be defending her from an attack. Suddenly he seemed to have gone crazy, as if all the accumulated tension were exploding out of his throat. “No!” he shouted. “I’m carrying her! I have to carry her! Get her a doctor!”
The nurses blocked him. Another two nurses rushed out and lifted the girl in their arms. Another came out of the hospital with a stretcher. They laid her on it and disappeared inside.
“Her name is Ruth!” cried Christmas. He tried to follow her inside but was stopped. “Ruth!”
“Ruth what?” asked the policeman, a notebook in his hand.
“Ruth,” said Christmas, turning to him. The fury of a few minutes ago had left him suddenly — just as suddenly as it had come — and now he felt empty and exhausted. He saw Santo being loaded into a police car.
“What did ye do to her?” the cop asked him.
Christmas looked back at the hospital, not saying a word, as the policeman shoved him towards the car.
“We didn’t do nothin’,” cried Santo, on the verge of tears.
Christmas kept looking at the hospital as the car pulled away.
They were put in a cell to wait questioning. This was a slow day, not too crowded, one of the deputies told them, laughing. There were two black men in the cell. One of them had a deep knife cut on his cheek. In one corner, with a mad fixed stare, a blond guy who looked about thirty reeked of something like ammonia, and kept muttering incomprehensible words in an incomprehensible language was curled on the floor. And then there was a boy a couple of years older than Christmas, skeletally thin, with a pianist's long hands. The skin was unnaturally shiny, and he had two black eyes. He looked quick and knowing.
The boy pointed to the man in the corner and, “A Polack. He killed his wife. And five minutes ago he pissed himself,” then he shrugged and laughed.
“Why are you here?” Christmas asked him.
“Me? I’m a pickpocket. You?”
“Nothin’!” cried Santo, terrified. “We ain’t done nothin’!”
The boy laughed.
“We saved this girl from an enemy gang,” said Christmas.
“Well that was real nice a’ you. See what you got outa it.”
“If anybody hurts a woman, I’ll cut his prick off with my own hands and then I’ll slit his throat. That’s the rule in my gang,” said Christmas, taking one step towards the boy. “And if they kill me, I’ll come back from hell and make their life a nightmare that won’t ever end. Guys who beat up on women are cowards. That’s why I don’t give a fuck about bein’ here. I ain’t scared.”
The boy stared at him without speaking. Christmas didn’t blink, and then, carelessly, he rubbed a hand on his bloodstained shirt.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked him, with a trace of respect.
“I’m Christmas. He’s Santo.”
“Call me Joey.”
Christmas nodded, silently, as if that meant something, a sign of approval.
“Your gang got a name?”
Christmas jammed his hands in his pockets. It made him look arrogant. In his right pocket he felt a big nail he’d found in the street that morning; he’d picked it up to fasten the kitchen clothesline better. “You know how t’ read?” he asked Joey.
Christmas turned to Santo and gave him the nail. He tilted his head at the graffiti-covered wall. “Write our gang’s name,” he told him. “So they remember us. Write it big.”
Santo took the nail and dug it into the wall, scratching the letters. They showed white against the brown paint.
“Di … am … ond … D … ogs …” Joey spelled out painfully and then said it again, “Diamond Dogs.” He looked at Christmas. “Great,” he said.
Manhattan — Coney Island — Bensonhurst, 1910
Two things in this new world made a special impression on Cetta: the people, and the sea.
The city streets, especially in the poor neighborhoods, were constantly jammed with people. Cetta had never seen so many persons together. Two tenement buildings here could have held everyone in her village. And there were hundreds of building like that, just on the Lower East Side. People lived stacked up in houses, in rooms, on the street.
She couldn’t help touching them as she brushed past, or hearing what they said, or smelling the odors that came from their bodies, and their clothes. Cetta had never dreamed there were so many races, so many languages. She’s had no idea that men and women came in so many varieties — tall and short — in so many hues of eye color and hair. There were strong ones and feeble; innocents and cheats; great wealth and rank poverty, all mingling together. It was like Babel, just the way the priest had described it back in her village. Sometimes Cetta was afraid that the towers of this city, too, would someday crumble and fall. She had arrived in the city, she was learning to find her way through it, but sometimes she feared that all its people were going to go crazy, all of them, all at once, and that they’d start shrieking incomprehensible words no one would understand.
And now she was beginning to speak this difficult and fascinating language, so soft and rounded. The only language her American son would ever know.
“You mustn’t talk Italian with Christmas,” Tonia and Vito Fraina told her. Nor did she herself speak her own language with the old couple who more and more seemed to be her family. The world beyond the ocean didn’t exist for Cetta. She had erased it with a simple act of will. With a thought. There was no longer any past. There was only this city, this new world. This would be her son’s homeland.
There were days when the streets frightened her. And there were other days when Cetta wandered aimlessly, mouth agape, watching cars blare their horns at horse drawn carts, gazing at her own reflection in the windows of dress shops or bakeries; tilting her nose to the sky, looking with amazement at the pylons and arches and steel cables of the newly built Manhattan Bridge rising out of the water, linking island mainland, miraculously suspended over the East River. Sometimes she felt suffocated in the narrow dark alleys strewn with trash, where people stank of garbage; or she might feel the intoxication of the great avenues where women gave off the scent of exotic flowers, and men smelt of Cuban cigars. But wherever she went there were people, so many people that no one could count them. So many that you might never meet the same person twice even if he lived in your building. So many that the city didn’t have a horizon.
And maybe that was why, after so much wandering and exploration in the city, with Christmas in her arms — because he needed to get used to this new world as soon as possible — Cetta had been surprised to discover the sea.
Surely she knew she was on an island; she must have known the sea was there, she of all people, having come there on a ship from across the ocean. The city had made her forget about the sea. Perhaps it was the endless noise, or the cement that was everywhere she looked. Or perhaps, the sea seemed unimportant compared with the city and its swarming inhabitants.
One minute there were buildings all around; the next thing she knew there was an open prospect. She was in Battery Park, with its tidy flowerbeds. And just beyond them was the sea. From there she’d followed a vociferating crowd, and she’d seen the ferryboat landing. Sailors, and women and children were all buying tickets. And across there — the posters and the signs said so — beyond the water, beyond the other endless world known as Brooklyn, was the amusement island. Without even knowing why, Cetta found herself standing in line, waiting to buy a ticket to Coney Island. She paid for it and, swept along by the crowd, looked out over the sea wall as an enormous ferry came noisily into its berth. Other people were shoving past her into the belly of the iron whale. Suddenly Cetta was fearful. What if she couldn’t find her way back to the Frainas’ windowless room and the brothel where she sold her body to strangers? She stood off to one side, with the ticket in her hand; watching the hawsers fall back into the water. She’d heard the roar of the ferryboat’s engines as they sent up bright heavy foam. And as the ferry moved off, another one came to the landing. The two metal monsters exchanged sounds, making their sirens howl, greeting one another, almost touching. Now a new noisy crowd was already gathering. Cetta looked at the sea one last time. It wasn’t really blue or green, but dark and iridescent like petroleum. It didn’t look like the sea. She hurried away, full of fear and excitement, clutching Christmas, and the ticket to Coney Island.
But after that first day she went back to look at the ocean every morning for a week, as if to remind herself that it existed. She sat on a bench in Battery Park, watching the ferryboats come in, always crowded with passengers. She thought that someday she, too, would be brave enough to leave the house and be sure of finding her way back. She sat on the bench, rocking Christmas on her lap, gripping the Coney Island ticket that she’d bought with her whore’s wages. She watched the seagulls wheeling in the sky and wondered if they flew to the tops of skyscrapers. She wondered what they saw and what they must think of the human zoo that teemed far below them.
The following week she was in the car with Sal, on the way to Twenty-Fifth Street, between Sixth and Seventh, where the brothel was.
“Did you ever go to Coney Island?”
“Yeah.” That was all he said, as usual.
For a little while Cetta kept looking straight ahead. She was always surprised at how the city landscape seemed to mutate, as if they’d crossed over an invisible frontier. The stifling hopeless downtown streets, the shops with faded and drooping awnings, the dusty display windows, the mud underfoot, all suddenly vanished. Everything became brighter, more luminous. The men strolling past wore gray suits and white shirts with starched collars; silk cravats, hats that weren’t shapeless; they smoked long fragrant cigars and held newspapers folded over twice to reveal the sporting columns. Horse carts yielded to automobiles; the glass shop windows lost all their dust; their awnings were brightly colored or striped, with elegant lettering. Cetta couldn’t say at what point the city decided to change. She only knew that at a certain moment she was drawn to something shining, off to her right, as they were going north. Instinctively she turned to look and saw the sign: “Fisher & Sons — Bronze Powders.” The light was reflecting off the samples of metal objects being refinished. A gleam of gold. And when Cetta looked ahead, through Sal’s windshield, the city had changed.
“Is it fun?” she asked.
“Coney Island,” and her hand went instinctively to her purse — the first purse she’s ever owned, black patent leather — in which she kept the ferryboat ticket.
“Depends what you like,” rumbled Sal’s deep hasty voice.
Silence fell again.
Cetta gazed up at the El tracks. The clattering train covered the sound of the engine and the boys shouting out front page headlines. The vibration shook loose something in Cetta, like a glass balanced on the very edge of a table that gets shifted just enough to make it fall to the floor.
“Sal, you boring like a dead man!” she exclaimed, still looking straight ahead, gripping the unyielding handle of her patent purse.
The car screeched to a stop in the middle of the street. Cetta fell against the dashboard. Behind them another car honked furiously. The driver shouted something at them as he passed them.
Sal turned towards Cetta, thrusting a large black finger at her. “Don’t never compare me to no dead man,” he growled threateningly. “I don’t need no bad luck.” He started the car again.
Cetta felt tears burning her eyes, she didn’t know why. She forced them back. When they pulled up in front of the brothel, she climbed out quickly, without saying goodbye to Sal, without even hearing the music coming from Twenty Eighth Street between Sixth and Broadway, where at least ten pianists were pounding out the latest songs.
“Hey, you,” said Sal, leaning out the open passenger door.
Cetta stopped, one foot on the first step, and looked back at him.
“Come here,” said Sal.
Cetta turned back, unwillingly, her lips pressed tightly together. Ma’am — as all the resident whores called the woman who managed the bordello — had told her never to disobey Sal, ever, not for any reason.
“You sixteen, right?” Sal asked her.
“I’m twenty-one but I look younger,” she recited mechanically, thinking he was testing her response to some future police raid.
“Hey, kiddo, ain’t nobody here but you and me,” said Sal.
“Yes, I’m sixteen now,” Cetta said proudly.
He nodded slowly, looking at her. “I’m comin’ tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. You be ready,” he said at last. “An’ leave the snotnose with Tonia an’ Vito,” he added, slamming the car door.
Cetta turned away and climbed the steps to the door, entering the building.
Sal watched her, thinking: She’s a little kid. Then he put the car in gear and headed for Moe’s, the diner where he spent most of his day, in the company of other tough guys like himself, lounging in the back room, talking about what was going on in the city, who was dead and who was still breathing; who was on the way up and who was headed down; who was still a friend and who had become an enemy since yesterday.
Cetta came into the bordello dressed in her everyday clothes, the plain drab things she always wore. She went straight to the costume room, undressed and put on the bustier that lifted her breasts and showed her dark nipples; then the garter belt, the green silk stockings she loved, and then her favorite dress, the dark blue one with little gilt spangles scattered across the silk-like random stars in the night sky. Like the dress the Madonna wore in the procession back home. She was strapping her feet into high-heeled shoes that made her look taller, when she felt a tingling in her left leg. Instinctively she hunched over, lowering the shoulder her mother had bound, not even four years ago. It seemed like a lifetime.
Cetta hit her leg with her fist.
“Why you do that, eh?” asked the fat woman in charge of the wardrobe.
Cetta didn’t answer her, didn’t look at her. The “dressmaker,” as everyone called her, was someone to be avoided. Not one girl ever confided a single thing to her, she was too bitter and venomous. Best to stay out of her way. Cetta stood still until the tingling passed. Then, as she left the dressing room, she smiled at her own image reflected in the mirror. What they said was true: America was a magic place. Her leg was almost completely healed. No one ever noticed that she limped. With her first wages Cetta had gone to a shoemaker — not on the Lower East Side, but in a neighborhood where nobody knew her — and had him add half an inch to the heel of her left shoe. That was all. And her leg was straight again.
When she came into the parlor — the big room full of armchairs and divans where the girls waited for a client to choose them — Cetta was, as usual, in a good mood. She greeted the other girls and sank back in a chair, showing off her legs in their sheer green stockings.
Two girls, Frieda the Kraut, a big tall blonde, and Sadie the Countess — who was supposed to belong to a noble European family from who knew where — were guffawing together. “So? How’d it go with Sal?” asked Frieda. The Countess closed her eyes and sighed. They laughed together. They saw Cetta watching them.
“Ah, you do not know what you’re missing,” the Countess purred.
”He has not tasted you yet?” asked Frieda, sounding amazed. Next she put a hand on her breast and opened her mouth, for Cetta’s benefit.
“With Sal you never miss … what’s missin’,” another girl, Jennie Bla-Bla, contributed. That was her nickname because she always talked too much.
“Bla-Bla, I swear to God you’d manage to say the wrong thing even if you had a nigger’s prick in your mouth,” opined Ma’am, toying with an auburn lock that had escaped from its pins. “That’s your weakness, girl. Someday that’s going to land you in trouble.”
All the girls laughed.
“All I meant was …” Jennie floundered, trying to justify herself. “Oh, well, fuck it, you-all know what I mean!”
“Fock it!” echoed the Countess.
And the girls laughed even harder.
“Just pay some mind to what you say,” Ma’am said reprovingly.
Jennie sulked for a moment; then she too burst into laughter.
Cetta didn’t understand why they were laughing. She tried to smile but she knew she was blushing. She hoped no one noticed. The girls were always talking about Sal, in mysterious phrases. Or that’s how it seemed to Cetta. She had tried to study him, to understand why they were all so crazy about such a rough ugly man, with those hands forever stained black with grease. And every time she asked the girls to tell her why, they answered her in some vague way. “Once he tastes you, you’ll understand,” they told her. Nothing more. But her curiosity didn’t go beyond that. Sex didn’t interest her. She was a whore; that was her job, which was something else.
The only thing Cetta really regretted was not getting to sleep in the big room the other girls shared. Those moments created an intimacy among them that Cetta didn’t share. In those moments, dropping off to sleep and awakening, none of them was a whore. They were just girls. And they became girlfriends. Cetta didn’t have any girlfriends. Her only friends were Tonia and Vito Fraina. But she had Christmas, she consoled herself whenever she felt sad. When any of the other girls got pregnant a doctor with no name came and scraped the baby out of her belly with a knife.
Cetta didn’t think about men. Taking them into her body didn’t bother her. It was just something that happened.
“She’s just a child,” Ma’am said, pointing Cetta out to certain clients. Their faces would light up, they’d bring candies into the room and offer them to her as if she were their little granddaughter, making her lie across their knees while they pulled up her skirt and spanked her. They told her she’d been bad and she mustn’t do it again. They made her promise. Then they’d pull out their member and put it into her mouth, already sweet and sticky with caramel.
“She’s a big whore,” Ma’am said to some of her other clients. And these men didn’t say a single word to her, they shoved her into the room, not bothering to undress her. They had her lie on her stomach, naked buttocks showing. Cetta could hear them working on themselves until they were ready. Some of them used the lubricant that was always there on the bedside table, courtesy of the house; but most of them would stand over her, spit between her buttocks, spread the spit with a finger, and then penetrate her.
“She’s such a sensitive girl,” Ma’am would tell yet others. These were the ones who wept after they’d made love to her because they had constrained her to the humiliation of being a prostitute, because their base instincts had soiled her. Or they would lie on her breast and talk about their wives, who had been like her, once upon a time, so young and submissive. Or they wanted to do it the dark, and they called her names that meant nothing to Cetta, names that long ago must have meant a great deal to these men.
“She’s your slave,” Ma’am murmured to others, before adding, “but don’t ruin my merchandise, hear?” And these men would tie her to the bed; draw a knife between her breasts and in between her thighs. Pinch her nipples with clothespins, snarl out orders, and make her lick their shoes.
“I’m afraid she’ll have to punish you,” Ma’am told others, smiling. And then Cetta tied them to the bed, scraped a knifepoint across their chests, and along the base of their testicles, pinched their nipples with clothespins, barked orders at them, made them lick her shoes, and then she put a high heel down their throats.
Ma’am knew what each of her clients desired. And Cetta would become whatever Ma’am wanted her to be. That was what a whore did. But she never thought about it before she arrived at the brothel. And she forgot about it as soon as Sal came to take her home. Because Cetta possessed her own interior world that kept her far away from everything. Not sheltered, but far away.
She never questioned why things happened. She hadn’t asked her mother when she’d crippled her. She hadn’t asked the man with the wooden leg why he raped her, nor the ship’s captain who had made her pay for the voyage by letting him fuck her. Nothing and no one had been able to break her. Cetta simply wasn’t theirs. She belonged to no one.
The next morning, at eleven o’clock, Sal pulled his car up to the sidewalk, forcing a street vendor to move his wretched merchandise out of the way in a great hurry. Cetta, who had been waiting on the stairs, smiled at the vendor as she came past him, resting a hand on his shoulder. She got into the car. Sal backed up and crushed the cardboard suitcase full of shoelaces that the man had been offering for sale.
“Why you do that?” Cetta asked, turning back to look at the poor man with his ruined wares.
“Because you looked at him,” Sal replied.
“Don’t talk shit.”
“You looked at him.”
“I not understand …”
“Listen. If you smile at him after I make him move it’s like you was tellin’ him he was right. Sayin’ it in front of me. And so it’s like you was tellin’ me I was wrong, in front of him. And him or some other piece of shit might get it into their heads to could say it to my face. So I had to make him understand who’s in charge here.”
Cetta stayed silent for a few moments and then she began to laugh. “Sal, I never hear you say so many words before!”
Sal kept on driving. But they weren’t going towards the brothel.
“Where we go?” asked Cetta.
“Coney Island,” Sal answered. He parked by the sea wall, pulled two tickets out of his pocket, identical to the one Cetta had been keeping in her patent leather purse. He got out of the car. “Get movin’,” he said rudely. “That ferry ain’t gonna wait.” Then he took her arm and hurried her to the landing stage. He shoved past the people standing in line, elbowed a path through the crowd, gave an evil look at a sailor who had risked scolding him, and thrust Cetta into the maw of the iron whale.
When the siren howled that the ferry was leaving, Cetta gave a start. As if she were awakening from a dream. And she had to bite her lips so that she wouldn’t weep tears of joy. Just like the ones that had come into her eyes the first time she tried on her whore outfit.
But by the time the ferry left the shore she was already back inside the dream, inside unreality. She wasn’t thinking about anything, she was almost not seeing anything. She was holding tightly to the rail at the prow, staring at the water that was being split in two, foaming. She kept holding on tightly because she was afraid she might turn into a gull and fly away, and she wanted to stay where she was, with her feet pressed against the vibrating iron. Against the first gift she had ever received. She couldn’t even manage to think about Sal, she didn’t even feel grateful. She stood there with the wind ruffling her heavy dark hair, and tried to smile. Just for an instant, all at once, she turned back to make sure Manhattan hadn't disappeared. And she looked forward again, seeing the coast of Brooklyn on her left, with the open sea ahead of her. And suddenly she laughed. And she hoped that nobody heard her, because she wanted that joy to be hers alone. Out of a kind of avarice, out of fear she might waste it.
And finally it was there: Coney Island.
“Throw,” Sal told her, handling her three cloth balls to fling against a pyramid of cans. “In,” he told her, pushing her towards one of the cars in the House of Horrors. “Some kind of crap for kissin’ in the dark,” he told her, hurrying her away from the Tunnel of Love. “Eat,” he said, thrusting an enormous shrub of cotton candy to her. “Have fun?” he asked her after an hour.
Cetta felt drunk. The crossing on the ferry, standing at the prow, gripping the guardrail instead of closed up in the hold; the beach she saw when they were almost there; the crowds strung along the shore, around places where bands were playing; brightly colored electric trams; the music coming out of dancehalls at the water’s edge; shops that sold striped bathing suits; the entrance to the amusement park. She was holding a plush bear that Sal had won sharpshooting. Her pockets were full of caramels, taffy, licorice whips, all-day suckers, and sticks of hard candy.
“Hey, did you have fun?” Sal asked again.
Cetta looked at him, dazed, then shifted her gaze, and pointed to the rollercoaster without speaking.
Sal stood unmoving for an instant, then he took her arm, went to the ticket booth, paid for a ride, and handed her the ticket. World’s Highest Ride was printed across it. People were screaming from the cars.
“By myself, I’m too scared,” said Cetta.
Sal looked up at the rollercoaster. He gave a furious kick to a lamppost, turned around and went back to the booth, shoved an amorous couple aside and bought another ticket. Then he sat beside Cetta in the little car.
Cetta smiled while they were going up. But when they reached the edge of the first precipice, she was sorry she’d wanted to try the rollercoaster. Her eyes were wide, she could hardly breathe, she clutched Sal’s arm and screamed with all the breath in her body. Sal didn’t move. He didn’t react. He only put one hand on his hat, to keep it from flying away.
When the ride was over Sal said, “Hey, stupid, you made me go deaf.”
Cetta thought he looked very pale.
“Let’s get out of here,” he grunted, and after that he didn’t say a single word to her.
Even when he saw her shivering on the return voyage, he didn’t say anything to her and he didn’t put his jacket around her, either. Then, after they came back to the car, Sal drove across Manhattan, over the East River to Brooklyn, and took her down a street lined with straggling trees, in Bensonhurst. The houses were smaller, two or three stories high. Everything looked different from the Lower East Side. It seemed like a village. Sal had Cetta get out of the car, and, still holding her arm, took her into one of these houses. They went up to the second floor. Sal pulled a bunch of keys out of his pocket and opened a door.
“My place,” he said.
He pushed her onto a brown sofa, took off his jacket and the holster with his gun. He rolled up his shirtsleeves. “Take off ya panties,” he said.
Cetta pulled off her underpants and dropped them on the floor. She reached out a hand to stroke Sal’s member.
“No,” he said. He knelt down in front of her, opened her legs, and pushed up her skirt. Then he sank his head into her tuft of black hair. He sniffed. “Spicy,” he said, without raising his head. The low vibration of his voice made Cetta feel a strange tickling. “Rosemary, yeah … pepper,” he went on softly, moving his flat pugilist’s nose in little circles.
Cetta realized that her eyes were shut.
“Somethin’ wild an’ damp … hot from the sun … but it ain’t dried up …”
Cetta never closed her eyes when she was with a client. Not even when they were doing it in the dark and no one could see her. She didn’t know why. It just never happened, she didn’t want to shut her eyes.
“Yeah … rosemary and wild pepper,” murmured Sal, burrowing in the dense hair.
But now Cetta couldn’t keep her eyes open. And Sal’s deep warm voice was resonating between her legs, vibrating as if from within a grotto; and the vibration spread up to her stomach, making it contract. And she listened as that voice kept penetrating her body even before it reached her ears.
“… Wild shrubs … moss …?” and thrusting his nose deeper, it touched her flesh, “… growin’ in a damp place …”
Cetta closed her eyes more tightly; she opened her mouth, not speaking, holding her breath.
“And in the ground … ”
Cetta felt his nose pull back, abandoning the flesh that was growing moist, just as the voice said.
” … in the ground, I’m tastin’ honey …”
Now Cetta could feel his tongue searching inside her, slowly, looking for the honey that she could feel flowing through her belly, wanting a way out.
“Chestnut honey,” Sal continued speaking into her body, making her tremble. “Dark and bitter … but it’s sweet, too.”
Cetta was breathless. Her mouth opened and closed to the rhythm of the heat that was coming through her in waves. Her arms were flung wide now. And her hands also opened and closed as her mouth did as she heard and felt Sal’s voice that never stopped speaking and vibrating deep inside her.
“And down in the honey …” Sal’s tongue penetrated her and moved higher, “a soft little sprout … tender … sweet like almond paste …”
“No,” Cetta said softly, with a long gasp. And she didn’t know why she’d uttered that word that she’d never said while she was being raped. “No,” she said even more softly, so that Sal wouldn’t hear her. “No,” she said again, feeling something unknown to her, something that didn’t hurt, that didn’t tear her apart, only a sensation that something like syrup was flowing inside her.
“A pale sprout …” Sal went on, rolling the tip of his tongue and then spreading it, as if showing Cetta that place she hadn’t known she had, teaching her what she had never known she could feel, “… a pale little sprout in a dark shell … like a oyster, like a pearl in a oyster …” Sal made a low satisfied sound and pressed his head and tongue deeper between Cetta’s legs, increasing the rhythm of his kisses. “Yeah … there … there …”
Cetta’s arms clasped Sal’s big powerful head, her fingers twisted in his pomaded hair, drawing him more deeply into her, so hard she might suffocate him because she herself was suffocating.
“Yeah … now I can taste it. Salt. Salt, down in the honey … come on, little girl, come, come …”
Cetta’s eyes flew open when she felt the salt, just as Sal named it, surging up in her powerfully, contracting her stomach, stopping her breath. And as she whimpered, she knew that only by crying out could she stop that torment in her flesh.
“Sal!” she cried, defeated.
Sal lifted his head. He looked at her and smiled.
Cetta saw that he had the whitest teeth. Straight. Perfect. They didn’t match his ugly damaged face. Filled with gratitude, still shaken by the strange dizziness that Sal’s thick tongue had evoked in her, she flung herself on his trousers, began to unbutton them.
Sal pushed her hands away. “I said no," he said in his deep brusque voice.
Cetta looked at his lips, shiny with the pleasure he had given her. She leaned back on the sofa, closed her eyes and said, “Talk to me again, Sal.”
“Are we engaged now?” asked Cetta, her eyes shining with joy.
Sitting across from her on the bed, his face mostly hidden by a man’s old hat many sizes too big for him, was little Christmas.
“You said it, kid,” said Cetta, lowering her voice to sound like Sal’s, whose role was being played by Christmas. “And from now on, you not a whore any more. I keep you just for me.”
“Really?” asked Cetta in her own voice.
“You betcha ass,” she answered herself, reaching for the lowest notes she could produce and waving Christmas’ little hands. She had rubbed soot on them to make him look more like Sal.
Christmas pushed out his lips and began to cry, just as Tonia and Vito came home. Cetta whipped the hat off Christmas’ head and took him in her arms to comfort him.
“What happened to his hands?” asked Tonia.
“Nothing,” replied Cetta, smiling. “He get in the ashes.”
“Ah, there’s my hat,” said Vito. “I couldn’t find it this morning.”
“It was under the bed,” lied Cetta.
“It’s fuckin’ cold outside,” said Vito, jamming the hat onto his head.
“You keep a clean mouth in front of the bambino,” warned Tonia. “Give him to me,” she told Cetta. She took Christmas in her arms, sat at the table, dipped his hands in the basin of water, and began to clean them. “Do you want to be ugly like Uncle Sal?” she asked the child.
Cetta smiled and blushed. She didn’t believe in her game, but she liked playing it.
“Get ready, Cetta, Sal’s coming any minute,” said Tonia, drying Christmas’ hands. Now he was laughing and happy. She glanced at her husband, who was lying in the bed. “And you, take off that hat.”
“Hat on the bed brings death.”
“It’s on my head.”
“Your head she’s on the bed. Take it off.”
The old man grumbled something incomprehensible. He got up, came to sit at the table across from his wife, and defiantly pulled the hat more firmly over his ears.
Cetta laughed as she changed her dress.
Christmas laughed too, looking at his mother, then he reached toward Vito and pulled at his hat. “Grandpa,” he said.
Vito’s face turned suddenly red. The old man’s eyes filled with tears. “Give him here,” he said to his wife. He took Christmas on his lap, holding him fiercely.
From outside, an automobile horn honked imperiously.
“It’s Sal,” said Cetta.
But Vito and Tonia weren’t paying any attention. Tonia stretched her hand across the table and gripped her husband’s. And both of them, with their own free hands, caressed Christmas’ fine pale hair.
Sal was honking the horn again as Cetta ran down the steps to the sidewalk. She slid into the car. “Sorry,” she said.
They sped away. All along the streets, even in this miserable ghetto, people were preparing for Christmas.