Leo Plotnick, seven years old, forty-seven inches tall and all of forty-nine pounds, knocks on the apartment door. An old woman, soft-cheeked and round, with a billowy chest, grey hair, and an apron over a black dress, opens the door. ‘Prego, come in,’ she says, and takes his hand in hers. It is soft and warm. Moist.
Anna Marie, her winking brown eyes, her frilled white dress and polished white shoes, peeks out behind her grandmothers legs. It is the day of her first communion.
‘Leo, look at me. You be good!’ his mother tells him and Anna Marie pulls him into the humid apartment. People are everywhere: cooking, talking, eating, running, sitting, drinking, standing, crawling. Sweet onions, garlic, sweat, cigarettes. A tumult of unfamiliar voices. Music.
Anna tosses his wrapped gift onto the living room couch, piled high with coats, hats, and packages.
Young men in loose black suits and white shirts buttoned to the neck, holding glasses filled with red wine, watch the boy come in. They smile. Nod to him.
Their faces are tanned, thick black hair slicked back from their foreheads, and hands strong and rough, light traces of dirt under their ragged fingernails.
They are talking. Some words he recognizes: Mussolini, D’Maggio, Impellitteri. Most he does not.
These men look like the very men his mother would cross the street to avoid if she saw them standing on the sidewalk, smoking, talking like they are now, gesturing with their hands, up close in one another’s faces.
Women in the kitchen, thick-soled shoes, open and close the icebox, mix bowls full of meat with their hands, slice loaves of bread as long as his arm and spoon hot red sauce to their lips.
Beside the couch, a wooden Victrola cabinet is playing opera. Resonant voices, the clatter of dishes and silverware.
Anna Marie’s room is bright, pink curtains on the windows; her three cousins look at Leo. His blue-striped polo shirt tucked into short pants and his brown socks. They stand stiffly, dressed alike in fitted white suits, carnations in their lapels. They don’t say a word.
The walls are white. Above Anna’s bed hangs a wooden cross. He has seen crosses before. Thin gold ones. But on this one is the tortured body of Christ, dying, his arms splayed out, his head fallen to one side, blood dripping from his forehead, his side, from the spikes through his palms, his eyes looking upward.
Leo is transfixed, entranced, afraid. Staring at it, he feels, must be forbidden. A sin. An unforgivable act. His father would surely be flushed with anger at him.
And then the children are called to the table. Bowls of spaghetti, covered in the red sauce. Steaming. Meatballs as big as oranges. Grated cheese. Peppers. Parsley.
Leo reaches for his fork, the cousins on either side of him stop him, pull his hands down and bow their heads. He follows their lead. His heart beats in the rhythm of the words they all recite. He lifts his head only when they do.
An attentive aunt tucks a napkin in his shirt. ‘Eat,’ she tells him. And so he does, sucking in the slippery strands. ‘Mangia, eat,” she says, prodding at his shoulder. He bites into a meatball and swallows hard. This treif, this un-kosher meat is absolutely forbidden. Primal, desirably delicious. It sticks in his throat like a piece of coal.
After they eat, the bent-shouldered grandfather changes a record on his Victrola. Holding the record by its edges, sliding it slowly into its paper sleeve in a large cardboard album, he dusts off another one and fits it on the turntable. Everyone crowds around to watch, pushing into one another to get close. He turns up the volume. The record hisses and the music begins.
Leo is elbowed and jostled against the edge of the cluttered couch. The cushions are high, mounded with coats. He hops up and bounces himself firmly atop the pile.
He feels the records break beneath him a moment before he hears them crack. He cannot stop himself from sinking deeper into the stack of albums below him. He can’t know how many records he has broken. They are brittle. He can feel them shatter. The jagged pieces grate against one another. He looks for Anna and doesn’t see her.
Heat rises up into his face. His ears ring. His groin and abdomen contract with visceral fear. He wants to leave, to go home but then the grandmother lights the candles on the white-frosted cake. Everyone rushes back to the table. He jumps down and rushes with them. There is singing and wild clapping.
He scans the joyful faces of the family ringing the table, searching their eyes, dreading that one may have seen what he has done. They are eating thick slices of cake in heaping mouthfuls, talking and licking the creamy white icing along their red lips.
He wants to sink beneath the table. How can he confess to all that he has done here? He cannot. He will tell no one.
Regardless of how good he promises to be or how many tears he will shed, he knows that punishment will come. And all he wants now, all he will ever, ever ask for, is for his mother to come now and take him home.