From “The River in Me”

By Paola Corso

Pittsburgh, 1966

When I was little, I saw the very last bubble of air from Rico’s breath ride the Allegheny River. I was too young to realize that empty circle was the last I’d see of my brother. While it floated so light and easy on the water, he and his friend were sinking to the bottom. And the second the bubble popped, my brother was dead to this world.

All I knew was they had disappeared after their boat capsized. The worst of it, though, was when I ran to tell Mama what happened. I knew then and there it would take us both a long time to face the river again. A long time to find Rico.

I spent years searching for him and Stanza, and it seemed as though I couldn’t think of anything else until I knew where they had gone. Once I did, I wanted nothing more than to get my mama to believe me.

Even before Rico drowned, she always said the river was a hell that froze over and melted. She just cursed it all the more after he died. I tried to listen when she said I wasn’t allowed to look in the river’s direction anymore for fear it would tempt me with its coolness and surface so smooth and shiny. This was not easy since we lived on First Avenue in Tarentum, right along the Allegheny.

She made me walk up to the spring every morning because what poured out of the spigot came from the river, and she didn’t want us filling ourselves up with what she called devil’s brew. If not out of respect for our bodies, then for Rico. Now my papa said he lost a son too, but he believed the river wasn’t filthy dirty like she said–it was as clean as we made ourselves to be.

I never understood what the Allegheny ever did to her, although Mama had her reasons for despising the river from the time she was a girl my age. If only I had known this, maybe it would have been easier, and yet, Rico’s drowning was always enough for me to forgive Mama for her hatred and fear, though I carried none of my own. Only hers until I found what I was looking for there.

Although I’m standing with Mama on a boat along the Allegheny, not once did I think I’d see this day since he drowned. As I gaze into its inkwell blue
waters, now I know that his bubble floating on the river will never really disappear. Not until another one rises to the surface to take its place.

Tarentum, 1965

Chapter 1
Mama is making me wear my First Holy Communion dress to Easter Mass. It zips in the back so I can’t take it off by myself. I swear this is no accident. She tugs so hard when the metal teeth catch a thread that my knees are ready to buckle.

“Nobody’s going to notice it’s halfway up with my coat on.”

Mama doesn’t answer. It’s one of those times when she can’t yell and yank at the same time.

“I’ll keep it on even if I get hot,” I promise, thinking what difference did being overheated in church make when my straw hat pinches my ears. Lace anklets scratch my toes. Starched gloves stiffen my fingers. Patent leather shoes grow me blisters. At least if I keep my coat on, the ribbon dangling from my bonnet won’t tickle my neck and make me squirm more than I already will in those hard wooden pews.

My sister, Dina, is lucky. She outgrew her First Holy Communion outfit years ago. I keep trying to get Mama to see that I’m too big for mine, too. “I need the next size,” I insist.

“Ooofa,” she says, annoyed. “You complained when I bought it last year and it fit perfect then. The fungo you had on your face.” That’s the Italian way of saying I was pouting so much my face had as many wrinkles as the bottom of a mushroom cap.

“I won’t hear the priest with this hat over my ears. And I’ll have to limp up to the altar to receive Communion if you make me wear these shoes.”


“I can’t turn the thin pages of my missal with these on. And it’s not right to dip dirty gloves into holy water.”

“You are not to take your outfit off until we set foot in this house. Capisci?”

Most of the time, Mama’s heart-shaped face reminds me of a Valentine box of chocolates, but when she’s mad about something, she sticks out her jaw. I’m more afraid of her crooked bottom teeth than anything else about her. Even the pink lipstick she wears doesn’t soften her bite.

While Mama is still zipping me up, Rico struts into the room and hands her a pot of hyacinths with that colored aluminum foil wrapped around so she’ll forget to inspect him. Because Rico’s weight hasn’t caught up with his height, his clothes are so baggy, you’d think there’s nobody inside if it weren’t for his wrists and ankles. He’s getting so tall for his pants that he has to make sure his shoes are polished and his socks match. His ties are always lopsided, but he tucks the long end inside his pants with his shirt so Mama never notices. The part in his wiry hair is straight. He greases it back for church, which makes his deep-set eyes stand out. In fact, Mama always says she can see all the way to Italy in Rico’s eyes when they aren’t under the shadow of curls. And since Rico is about to pass Mama’s height, she gazes into them all the more while she still can.

“What a beautiful flower, Rico. Put it by the Blessed Mother.”

Rico hesitates. With so many statues of the Virgin Mary in our house, he has to ask which one.

Mama signals as she ties a tight bow in the back of my dress. “On my dresser.”

Now that there’s no getting out of my chiffon puff, the only good thing I can say is that the skirt’s so frilly, the crumbs on my lap from snacking without a plate don’t show, which means I can sneak something from the kitchen even though I’m supposed to fast before receiving Communion. I guess the color’s okay, too, because the powdered sugar Mama sprinkles on her bowties doesn’t show either on a white dress. Even so, I still can’t wait to be a size 10. I pray I’ll fill out because I know my mama will make me wear this torture for the rest of my life until I do.

I sneak over to empty out the crumbs in my dress over the wastebasket before I put on my spring coat. Mama and Dina are upstairs. Mama’s probably switching her rosary and holy cards from her regular purse to her Sunday one. If I’m right, I’ll soon hear the sound of snapping fingers the gold clasp makes when she opens and closes it. And Dina’s in her bedroom, slamming drawers to find the hairband she stuffed between her clothes. Serves her right for hiding it from me.

My papa and Rico are waiting for us on the front porch. They’re sitting on the brick wall Mama had Nonno Vernese build a couple of years ago after Dina fell off doing a cartwheel and sprained her ankle. But behind Mama’s back, Dina sits on it and watches her friends outside of Mrs. Adler’s corner store a block away, her legs kicking the bushes. Sometimes, she walks it like a tightrope, and her arms bat the thick green-striped awning above. Mama also doesn’t like Papa and Rico sitting on the brick either. Says it snags their good suits.

Only on special occasions does Papa put on so many clothes. Around the house, he wears a white, V-neck T-shirt, his holy medal Mama gave him somewhere under the bush of chest hair. The crane he operates at work is air-conditioned but even so, the temperature breaks 100 degrees as soon as he hauls his first piece of iron over to the fire. So when Papa comes home from work, he doesn’t want to sweat a drop. Rico and I take turns filling up his pitcher of ice water next to the couch.

Papa stares down at his watch. “Let’s get a move on in there.” Most of the time, his mouth is cracked open as if he were about to say something, but he prefers to speak with his eyes. Everything closes in on them–his lids hang low, his cheekbones push up and the ridge of his nose is wide. I believe the less of Papa’s eyes we see means the more he can see of us.

Rico grabs the broom Mama stores by the doorbell. He jumps onto the Country Belle milk box and pretends to sing into a microphone, hiccuping every syllable: “That’ll be the d-a-a-a-a-a-y that I die.”

Dina parades out onto the porch, rattling her charm bracelet. She turns to Rico, “You sound like you’re gasping for air.” She has brown, shoulder-length hair ironed straight, pale, buttery skin and a look on her face that makes me think she’s going to yawn. I ask if she’s tired and she says, “Mellow yellow.”

As Mama scurries out, Rico is still on the milk box crooning. She grins. “Get down from there, you’re already too tall.” Papa closes the door behind her, and we all start walking along First Avenue toward St. Peter’s Church.

Tarentum is one of those lanky river towns, a mile and a half long and only 10 blocks wide. Bordered by the railroad tracks on one side and the river on the other, it’s filled with two-story brick houses that are identical except for the different colored porch awnings. This is practically the only way families can tell which house is theirs since even most yards have the same green clipped hedges–high enough to keep dogs off the grass but low enough that kids hurdle over.

Tarentum’s a place where you know what’s going to happen before it happens. Like Harry’s Pizza. Every time we order a pepperoni pie, there’ll be exactly two pieces of meat on every slice. At the bank, it never fails that the clerk tucks lollipops in the drive-through envelopes along with the money, and on Saturday mornings at Weisburg’s, there’ll be a line all the way back to the saltine crackers when we go to buy city chickens. Only the railroad tracks and the river are different. You never know what’s coming or when.

As we pass a sign with the town’s name on it, I ask Rico how Tarentum got its name.

“Why are you asking him for?” Dina butts in with her sarcasm. She hates that I look up to my brother even though she’s the oldest.

“Because I want an answer, Dina. Not another question.”

“You think he’s such a know-it-all.”

“It’s named after a city in Italy along the water that was really fertile. Mr. Dudek said the Romans conquered it for its honey and olives. Stanza has a different reason: He’d say, ‘Why did the fisherman bring his boats here? Ta-rent-em.'”

“What a sorry excuse for a joke,” Dina mutters.

“The river’s high today from all the rain. See for yourself, Carlotta,” Papa says, picking me up so I can peek my head over a bush. I like it when I see the world from his height. The sky is pale and the river looks like bare skin, shivering.

The boats tied to the dock bump up against it every time a wave comes in. The motorboats make a heavy knocking sound, the rowboats a soft one. It’s the difference between my father banging with his fists on the bathroom door when he needs to use it and my mother tapping with her fingernails.

The place where people unload their boats into the water on a pulley is quiet. From my window I often hear cinder stones kicking up under car tires, since we live so close by, but everyone in Tarentum is in church now.

Papa points. “It’s high and mighty all right. One of those days when it’s tired of providing all the time. Tired of giving. Every now and then, it gets the urge to take.”

Rico grins. “Na-ah. The bank’s sinking.”

I spot a tree with a droopy branch along the bank and decide if any part is touching water on the way back from church, then Rico must be right. We walk under the Tarentum Bridge. Being under a steel span is like being at the foot of a giant Erector Set.

Mama flattens the wrinkles on my dress as soon as Papa puts me down.

I tug at my brother’s suit coat. “How does land sink?”

Rico pulls at my arm. “It gets dragged under.”

“Basta. That’s enough, Rico,” Mama scolds. “You’re scaring her.”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’ll come back up. They taught us about floods at school. Mr. Gazerick says that’s why all the high schools in our area have pools because we need to learn how to swim and be lifesavers.”

I ask Rico if our house will come back up again.

“Maybe. Maybe not. There’s life down there, too.”

“I said that was enough!” The hat veil covering Mama’s face blows from the wind of her breath.

“That’s what Nonno Vernese told me. He said there’s all kinds of life. If you get to the bottom.”

“Can’t you tell when Grandpap’s pulling your leg, Rico? Wise up,” Dina says, pounding the sidewalk with her first pair of high heels so she can hear each and every step to remind herself Mama actually let her have them.

Papa adjusts the knot in his tie. “Did you know your grandfather was one of the best storytellers in all of Sicily? People came from all over to hear him.”

“How far’s the bottom, Rico?”

“Further than you could ever imagine, Carlotta. Nonno said–and these are his exact words mind you since I memorized them–that he made himself a special fishing rod with a line that was miles long. And one day, he decided to find out just how deep the river was. He tied the thickest slab of shale he could find onto the line and rolled it into the water, working up a sweat as if he were pushing a dead car off the road. That hunk of stone made such a splash that Nonno had to take off his shirt and wring out a bucket of water before hanging it on a willow tree to dry.”

“How do you know, Rico? You weren’t there,” Dina sneers.

“I’m just telling you the way he told me.”

“So you could make an English paper out of it.”

“Your brother is going to college, Dina,” Mama said. “You think he’s going to work in a mill like your father?”

“He’s in sixth grade, Mom. How do you know what he’s going to do?”

“He’s not like you. He works hard in school.”

Dina pushes her bonnet away from her face as far back as she can without it falling off. “I don’t care if he wants to go to college. Then you can quit nagging me. I plan to find a job in London.”

The Beatles don’t know it yet, but Dina’s going to work for them as soon as she finishes high school.

“Remember what President Kennedy said when he was alive: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” Mama recites.

“Yeah, and look what happened to him.”

“He was a good man. Bless his soul.”

“You just say that because he was Catholic. Plus you’re superstitious.” Dina lags behind to peek in the store windows on Fourth Avenue. She puts her face up against the glass of Cogley’s Jewelers and mumbles to herself, “Those are the earrings I want,” then yells to me, “Carlotta, I see the Timex watch Uncle Coco got you for your First Holy Communion last year.”

I kick an acorn stuck in a crack between the slate sidewalk. I wait for it to roll uphill where the roots of the oak trees are so overgrown that they’ve raised the thick gray slabs.

“Stop that, Carlotta. You’re going to scuff your good shoes,” Mama scolds. I hide the hand she slaps in Rico’s pocket until he continues Nonno’s story.

“It was dawn. The birds burst into the sky like fireworks. The fishing line began to unwind itself. It started out as slow as a bedroom slipper in the morning so Nonno plopped himself down along the bank and waited.”

“Listen to him!” Dina leads the way across the railroad tracks, past the boarded up train station.

“Come on, Dina. So by mid-morning, the sun was a hot coal on his back. He kept his eye on the reel going round and round, tracing one circle after the other. He got so hypnotized by the motion, it put him to sleep. He didn’t wake up until the sun darted down on his head so straight, the feather in the center of his green felt hat was its bull’s eye.”

“That hat again,” Mama grumbles.

“When Nonno found the same amount of line left as when he last looked hours ago, he figured it was caught on something, but it was still moving.”

Mama nudges Papa as we wait to cross the street. “Where did your father get this story? From his come si chiama?” She always says “what do you call it” in Italian when she’s thinking of a word she’d rather not say.

“What’s wrong with his story, Nica?”

Mama tugs at her dress so half her leg is showing, or as Mama probably thinks, half her leg is hiding. When she finishes, she brushes the shoulder of Papa’s suit coat. “Your father sure likes to hear himself talk.”

We wait for the traffic light to change. It’s a long one since we’re at a big intersection–the YMCA and Tarentum High School where Mama went to school after she came over from Italy.

“I’m not finished.” Rico leaps up on a bench, pulling out a piece of folded paper. “I wish I were wearing Nonno’s green felt hat. Then you’d listen.”

“Want to make a bet? That hat is so sorry.”

“Nobody asked you, Dina. Listen, okay, Nonno said night began to cover the sky in layers–a cotton sheet, a blanket, a quilt spreading its puffy corners. He decided he wasn’t going to leave no matter how long it took for the line to reach the river’s bottom.

“He sat there until the blackbirds flew to the crack of light opening the lidded sky to morning. And when he was convinced the line wouldn’t stop, even if he could sit there forever, he hurled the fishing rod into the river.”

“So Nonno never got his fishing pole back?”

Dina peers at Rico’s paper. “Mrs. Walters gave you an A+!”

Rico slips it back in his pocket. “I picked this story to write up because I believe it.”

“Papa, was Nonno telling the truth?”

“Of course not,” Mama snaps. “But that doesn’t mean your brother didn’t earn his A. He better not tell his classmates his grade or one of them will give him malocchio, so they will.”

Papa turns to Mama before we climb the hill. “You don’t like my father’s story, but you like our son’s A for writing it down. Same difference.”

“Rico put that fishing story to work. I don’t know why your father wastes his time in that river in the first place, Carlo. For what? It’s filthy.” Mama chokes the handle of her pocketbook. “I keep telling him if he catches anything from there, he’s not going to serve it on no table of mine!”

“Not even on a Friday when we eat fish anyway?” I ask.

“Not on my table!”

The St. Peter’s parking lot is one long breath of spring. People are lined up in their powder blue and pretty peach and honeydew green spring coats, waiting to get in the door. But nobody cares when we stand towards the front. Parishioners are only too happy to let their neighbor step ahead of them. Not like the lines at the A&P.

High, wooden seats box us in. Marble pillars in each corner are guards who stand perfectly still, watching over us. Lights, hanging on long chains from the ceiling, make me worry if I fall asleep, God will drop one on my head to wake me. During Mass, I finally figure out why we have to stand up and sit down and kneel so much and why the altar boy rings those bells all the time. It’s to keep people from taking naps.

We stand for the gospel: “Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.'”
I drop to my seat as soon as Father Feeney says this is the gospel according to Luke. I can tell by the way he’s smiling that this is going to be one long sermon. He’s got more teeth showing than they do on those Pepsodent commercials and cheeks as red as his hair.

“I woke up this morning at 5:30, my usual time, and didn’t stop thinking about what I could possibly say to you after reading Luke’s gospel. I’ve given my share of sermons over the years–many of them right here in this church–but it never fails that every Easter I am so overwhelmed by this glorious, glorious day that I find myself speechless. It’s been a long, hard winter and we can all thank God for the miracle of spring in our midst so if you bear with me, I’m going to tell you about something that happened to me on one of those spring days that re-enchant us with life. On that blessed day, the magnolia petals exposed the wounds of Jesus for us to bear witness. The daffodils splashed front yards with sunshine yellow, the tiny white bells of the lily of the valley were ringing with the sweetest scent and people were smiling again–just to smile. Something told me I had to spend the day outdoors so I arranged to go golfing. Now I’m not much of a golfer, and the divots were so numerous that I must have spent as much time re-landscaping the grass as I did swinging the club. This went on for three or four holes until I started to make real contact with the ball. I began to drive it maybe 100 yards, which was absolutely amazing for me. And I thought to myself, no more getting down on my knees to patch up the earth like some hack. I’m really golfing now. Well, like a hack golfer, I started slicing the ball and by the fifth hole, I was in the woods looking for my Top Flight. On my hands and knees…..”

I listen for the part in his sermon where he’ll talk about the resurrection, but the closest we get is Father looking for a missing golf ball in the woods like an Easter egg hunt. And after all that, he never finds it. I decide that if he can’t even explain a missing golf ball in the brush, then there isn’t a chance he’ll get to Jesus rising from the dead. Besides, I really don’t expect him to tell how it was done. Priests are like magicians. They don’t want to give away secrets. Otherwise, people’ll stop believing in their powers. It just isn’t the same as Nonno’s story about the river bottom. I believe that, but as hard as I try, I can’t picture our priest down on his hands and knees in the dirt looking for a little ball when you know he had a lot more in his bag.

After Father Feeney finishes his sermon, all the grownups reach into their pockets and purses for money to drop in the collection basket. Dina’s staring down at her fingernails so I know she wasn’t listening, and the organ is loud enough that I can’t whisper in Rico’s ear. I think how the Blessed Mother must have felt to find Jesus again after she thought he was gone for good. There’s no way I’d ever compare that to finding a golf ball.

We all march up to the altar to renew our baptismal rights. Father Feeney dips a stem of leaves into a bowl of holy water and splashes us in the face as we pass by. Dina speeds by him, but Mama holds the back of her shoulder until the next splash hits her. After that, she turns around to make sure Rico and I are blessed with the water and doesn’t start back until it drips down our foreheads.

On the way home from church, the branch seems closer to the water so my brother must be right. I wonder if Nonno’s fishing pole is still working its way down to the bottom of the Allegheny River, and if it’ll float back up to the surface once it gets there.

As soon as Papa puts the key in and turns the doorknob, Mama hurries straight to the oven. The door makes that same squeaky sound as our refrigerator, only with a lower pitch. That’s how I can tell what she’s doing in the kitchen without having to be there. She takes out the artichokes and the sweet potatoes and puts them in a cake pan for Rico to carry over to Nonna Nedda’s a few blocks downstreet.

I’m hoping that since I behaved myself in church, Mama will let me take off this outfit. My sister keeps on her dress plus flesh-colored stockings that are held up with a garter belt and girdle. I can’t believe she goes to so much trouble to make her skin look darker when she brags that hers is lighter than mine. She claims the freckles on her arms are proof she’s really from England. It’s because she likes the Beatles so much. Ringo especially since she doesn’t have to fight her girlfriends for him.

It seems to me she actually wants to wear as many uncomfortable things as she can. She even parts her hair down the side with a tight hair band and sharp bobby pins. Dina doesn’t mind covering up her ears because she isn’t allowed to pierce them until she reaches senior high. Just maybe Mama will change her mind then.

Dina grumbles on the way to Nonna’s. “Why can’t I get my ears pierced?”

“When you’re 18.”

“I’ll be able to drive a car before I can get my ears pierced?”

“Says who?”

“It’s legal, Mom.”

“That’s entirely too young. Your father hasn’t even taught me how to drive. Besides, we only have one car and he needs it for work.”

“But Grandma got her ears pierced when she was a baby. So did you. Why do I have to wait so long?”

“That was in Italy. We pierced our ears so it was another place where we could wear a tiny cross or holy medal blessed by the Pope. Not some cheap-looking costume jewelry from the five and dime that makes your ears turn green.”

“I said I’d only wear 14-karat gold, and if you give me the money, I’ll go to Italy and have all my earrings blessed by the Pope.”

“Salsiccia,” is all my mama has to say. What sausage has to do with anything I’ll never know.

Halfway to Nonna’s, Rico starts picking up potatoes in their foil and tossing them in the air. I bet he’s aching to do the same with the stuffed artichokes. It’s just that he knows if Mama’s homemade breadcrumbs drop out, she’ll give him what he calls a knuckle sandwich.

He and Stanza use all kinds of funny sayings. They have this club and only the two of them are members. They brag how nobody else can pass their initiation test, but I believe nobody else wants to put up with their silliness. They send messages to each other in pig Latin so only they can decode them. They plan to build a tree house outside their real house and hang a wire between them with a basket to send messages. When Rico mentioned this to Dina, she said that Stanza needed to fix his house on the ground first or else the government was going to condemn it.

Rico taps Mama on the shoulder. “Are we going to eat when we get there? I’m hungry.”

“You should know by now we eat as soon as everything’s cooked. Not a minute before and not a minute after.”

The kitchen fan vent is popped open and makes a whirring sound as we walk by the side of the house to Nonna’s back entrance. We can smell her stuffed artichokes and see Nonna Nedda through the kitchen window, fishing in a big pot with her wooden spoon for a noodle to test.

“Asta-pay ime-tay.”

“You better not talk that way in school. That’s for dropouts like Stanza.”

“It’s just pig Latin, Mama.”

“I’ll give you Latin. The kind you hear the priest say in Church.”

“I don’t want to learn Latin. I want to learn more Italian.”

“Then start speaking it. Not that dirty language.”

“Not more Italian,” Dina complains. “I already hear too much.”

“No monkeying around,” Nonna says when she greets us at the door.

As soon as Mama slips off her coat, she puts on an apron that matches Nonna’s. When I stand real close so all I can see is the faded yellow print, I can’t tell who’s who until I notice the veins on Nonna’s legs from standing at the fruit store all day. She even eats standing up there because she’s too busy to take a break.

Mama hands me and Dina dishes to set the dining room table. I don’t mind because I play my game of finding old round glass stains through the holes in the lace tablecloth and setting the glass on the exact spot. The circles are from the orzata the grownups drink while playing cards. The glasses of almond drink start out all icy, but by the end of the night, they break out in a sweat and drip on the table. Everyone’s eyes are so busy drilling holes through their cards, nobody bothers to get coasters. Not even Mama. I wish she would play cards more often so she wouldn’t notice all the things I do wrong.

Mama peeks her head through the doorway. “Oggi, Carlotta. Today already.”

“Are you going to play cards after supper?”

Rico chimes in. “Yeah, are you going to play cards?”

There’s something about dealing a deck with her sisters that changes Mama. It’s the perfect time to tell her you spilled sugo all over your dress because you forgot to wear a napkin. She’ll look up from her hand, holding a fan of cards, and say, “I pass.”

I have this feeling she’s not after the money, since she can make more collecting S&H green stamps. She’s just a better player than her twin sisters, so they both wouldn’t mind being her partner even though they still pair up in an instant. Mama gets so annoyed with Nonna when they’re partners. Nonna uses her cards to fan herself, and Aunt Flo and Aunt Rose both sneak looks at her hand when the cards dip their way, although they pretend not to notice. If Mama loses the game, she gets mad at her sisters for cheating. If she wins, she worries her good luck will bring the evil eye. Seems to me she doesn’t like winning or losing.

Uncle Coco arrives, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief. His porous, shiny skin reminds me of a colander. As soon as he stuffs the cloth in his back pocket, he plops in the seat where Nonno Nedda sat before he died. That’s not the only special treatment he gets. He’s allowed to call his sister by her full name, Domenica, when he’s mad at her. Everyone else, including Papa, calls Mama Nica. That’s two more syllables longer he gets to yell at her. Uncle Coco must be hungry. He isn’t even settled in his chair when he mumbles the shortest prayer I ever heard in his low, sandpaper voice. “Bless us, oh Lord. Amen.”

He forgets the part about “and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ, our Lord.” I bet Papa wishes he could get away with this. Mama’s so stunned, she can’t move her lips, and by the time she can, Uncle Coco grabs the gravy dish of sauce and pours half of it on his pasta.

“Pass me the cheese.” His head is down so low, his nose is practically touching a meatball.

“Are you talking to me?” I ask.

“Who do you think I’m talking to? The man on the moon, for Christ’s sake?”

Uncle Coco always shouts as if he were yelling over the noise of canning machinery at the Heinz factory where he works. His voice is so loud, he could speak over a train if he wanted. Being that Nonna Nedda lives right beside the railroad tracks, one zooms by as we finish up our pasta. I swear this is better for ajita than Alka-Seltzer because nobody bothers to argue about anything for a whole five minutes while the train passes, even Uncle Coco. For once, something’s louder than he is.

Rico puts down his fork. “May I be excused?”

“Wipe your muso.” Nonna uses the word for an animal’s face when she speaks to us kids.

“Don’t you want a slice of ham, Rico?”

“I’m full. I can’t help it Nonna’s sugo is so good.”

Rico is the kind of person who knows what to say, when to say it and mean it. Now Dina knows what to say a lot of the time too, since she’s a teenager, but her words are as empty as Rico’s are full. It is true about Nonna’s sugo. We always give some to Nonno Vernese since he doesn’t have a wife to cook for him anymore. And Mama can’t stand the thought of him eating what he catches from the Allegheny River.

Rico starts collecting plates. Nonna runs them through the spigot real quick for our next course. He sets them back on the table so it looks as though we never ate a thing. It could have fooled me if only my stomach weren’t so full.
Then he offers to take a bushel of chestnuts back home that Nonna Nedda brought from her fruit store. I jump up to go with him.

Dina rolls her eyes. “Leave him alone, Carlotta.”

“I’m just going back home. No big shakes,” Rico says to me.

“I’ll pick up all the chestnuts that drop out of the bushel for you and open all the doors.”

He lifts the bushel up just enough to measure its weight.
“I’m taking Carlotta with me,” he announces.

Mama waves the spoon in her hand. “Don’t get that dress dirty. And come right back. It’s going to storm.”

As I pass Dina, she whispers, “Collo,” the word for neck. The only words my sister rattles off in Italian are the ones she’s not allowed to say in English. Mama tells Dina she’s not allowed to call me that, but anytime my picture’s taken at school, it’s Mama who tries to get me to cover it up with a turtleneck. My long neck is the only reason she lets me grow my hair long. Not because I want pigtails.

Rico carries the bushel basket of chestnuts on the bottom just in case it drops out. His chin rests on a mountain of chestnuts the same color as his eyes. I open the door and tell him when there’s a break in the sidewalk so he doesn’t trip and fall.

“Now,” I blurt out as he’s about to set his foot on the crack. I figure he’s as good as blind with his face in that basket.

“You don’t have to tell me when there’s a regular crack. Just something out of the ordinary. Like when I come to a moat or a gangplank. Or a conveyor belt.”

“What’s that?”

“Once you get on, there’s no escaping. You’re like a bottle of milk. It presses on a label and smashes down a cap and seals it so you can’t get out.”

“Sounds like Mama dressing me in my Communion outfit.”
“Wearing a dress isn’t that bad, is it?”

“What does it look like to you?”

He licks his lips. “Like the meringue on top of Nonna’s coconut cream pie.”

“That’s no fair. You like coconut cream pie.”


I spot a pair of Band-Aids behind a shrub. It has to be Stanza, since he’s constantly skinning his knees. And I see his bushy eyebrows that Mama’s so afraid of. She thinks he can cast spells with them.

“We see you, Stanza. You can come out,” I yell.

About the count of ten, Stanza, whose cotton ball cheeks are whiter than his yellowing teeth, pops out of one of those perfectly round evergreen bushes you have to trim in the summer with clipping shears. “Let’s go fishin’!”

“I’ve got to take these home.”

“That won’t take no time.” Stanza pokes my brother in the arm with his finger. He stands there with his feet pointing inward, which kids in the neighborhood say is because he’s from Ducktown, the place along the river where all the ducks live.

“Get out of my road. This is heavy.”

Stanza grabs at the metal handle. “You carry half and I’ll carry half.”

As soon as Rico lets go of one side, the basket tips over. Chestnuts spill everywhere. On the sidewalk, in the grass, on the brick road.

“If there’s an even number, it means good luck. If there’s an odd number, we’re in deep trouble,” I say as we stoop to pick them up.

“That don’t make no sense.”

I explain to Stanza that Mama doesn’t like odd numbers. Especially with chestnuts. I’ve seen her at the market. After she scoops in a pound, she counts them. And when there’s an odd number, she adds one more. She says if you have an odd number, you upset the balance and that means trouble.

“We have to find them all!”

“Mama’s superstitious, Carlotta. That’s all.”

I insist we get down on our knees. I see how many I can hold in one hand. I’m pretty sure I can fit a fifth one but that’s an odd number. I sure don’t want to touch bad luck with my bare hands, and if I put my gloves back on, I won’t be able to grip any.

“I count 137. We’ve got to make the number even.” I begin combing the grass with my fingers. Every time I touch a bald spot, I wonder if that’s where a dandelion used to be, and if the person boiled it up for supper like my mama did when she was little. Or if that’s where the even chestnut is now. “Keep looking! We need to find one more!”

“Don’t bother,” Rico yells. When I walk over to them sitting above the sewer, I notice a chestnut down there.

“Lower me so I can reach it.”

“You can’t.”

“Yunz want me to go down ‘ere?”

“You won’t be able to get back up, Stanza. It’s only a chestnut.”

I shake my brother’s arm. “But we can’t keep an odd number. It’s bad luck!”

“Can’t you just give Stanza one to eat?” Rico asks.

“Yeah, I’ll eat it.”

“No. We need to add one.”

I can’t believe after what happened, Rico is going to let Stanza help him carry the bushel the rest of the way home, but my brother has the same patience with me when I act clumsy. What matters is that the even chestnut is down the sewer.

“Wait!” I scream.

“Come on! We need you to open the door,” Rico calls back.

I take one last look at the good luck through the bars and run with my blisters right behind me.

Paola Corso received the 2000 Sherwood Anderson Foundation award at the North Carolina Writers Network annual conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 11. She teaches creative writing at Fordham University and, as her autobiographical sketch in this issue indicates, has published extensively.