Ma squirrels dirty pennies in a muffin tin, clunky nickels and thin dimes in a 1964 World’s Fair ashtray, and thick quarters in a chipped New York Yankees coffee cup.
Da tucks ones inside his Dutch Master cigar box, slips a spare five under the sticky bottle of amaretto in the liquor cabinet, and scotch-tapes a twenty under his bowling trophy that reads SECOND PLACE.
American money: it’s everywhere, except between your skinny little fingers. The only time you get to hold silver in your hands is when Ma plucks a quarter from the Yankees cup and sends you down the avenue to buy a legna, a fresh loaf of Italian bread.
At Maxi’s Deli, men in baggy pants sit on vinyl stools at the lunch counter, drinking good-to-the-last-drop coffee and smoking cigarettes. Maxi stands behind the cash register. He’s got his eyes on you. Ma perché? This isn’t the drugstore, where everywhere you turn there’s something good to swipe—Baby Ruths and Charleston Chews and Doublemint gum. What would you filch from Maxi’s Deli—a pink packet of Sweet-n-Lo? a sick-looking dill pickle from the huge jar on the counter? a salt shaker?
The legne are stacked like logs on a wire rack opposite the register. You’re not sure if you’re supposed to put the coin on the counter first and then pick up the legna, or vice versa. So you do both at once, right hand grabbing the bread, left hand sliding the quarter onto the counter.
Then you run out of the deli before Maxi can accuse you of five-fingering something that doesn’t belong to you.
Money doesn’t grow on trees, Ma says. So it must grow in fields. When you stare at the middle of a map of the United States, you imagine greenbacks sprouting from the rich ‘merigan soil, bending like wheat and oats and barley in the prairie wind.
Stunod, your sister says. She tells you money gets made—printed!—in a factory in Washington D.C. called The Treasury.
You wonder if the Treasure workers pocket a dollar here, a dollar there. Or maybe they have guards that stand over them, eyeballing their every move, like Maxi.
Every Sunday Ma gives you a dime to put in your offertory envelope. One time you seal your envelope only halfway and when Ma isn’t looking, you slip out the dime and save it to buy a Mounds bar at the corner market.
If you steal once, you can say it was an accident.
Twice, twice only makes you a real thief.
Ma gets her paper money from the big stone building on the avenue. Entering The Greater New Haven Savings Bank is like walking into a cathedral. The floor is marble. The ceiling vaulted. The huge windows so flooded with light you feel like you should genuflect.
Behind the iron bars at the high counter stand The Lollipop Ladies. As Ma hands them her passbook and says give me one ten, two fives, and five ones, you hang back from the counter so the ladies will see you and ask which flavor lollipop you’d like.
You want the yellow or the red, but Ma, whose motto is we don’t take charity, answers for you: she’ll take whatever you give her and be happy with that.
You’re anything but happy with the green or the orange. But since something is better than nothing, you stick the lollipop in your mouth and suck on whatever you get.
Money is supposed to be verde, but the front of a dollar bill is white as cauliflower. On the back of the bill—green as the grass that never grows on your front lawn because it’s full of weeds and cicoria—an eyeball floats above a pyramid.
Whose eye is it? George Washington’s? Ma’s? Maxi’s? God’s? Or is this the evil eye, the mal’occhio Ma says is everywhere and if you don’t watch your step, it’ll kill you?
Wanna see a magic trick? your cousin asks.
He takes out a dollar and folds it so George Washington isn’t George Washington anymore. He’s a mushroom, your cousin says. But you think George looks like the top of the atom bomb the Russians keep threatening to drop and you grow so scared you back away from the dollar, before it explodes in your face.
For Christmas your Uncle Augie Doggie gives you a brand new fifty-cent piece. Tails shows an eagle. Heads shows the head of the dead president.
You keep your shiny John F. Kennedy half dollar on top of the spumoni-colored doily on the mahogany bureau, next to the 14-karat gold crucifix Gramma bought back from Italy and the miniature ship in a bottle you bought at the Mystic Seaport souvenir shop. These are your three most precious possessions.
The winter Da is out of work, Ma eyes your half dollar every night. Before you go to sleep you pray she won’t take it to buy a box of Ronzoni for tomorrow’s supper. God must hear your prayers, because in the morning John F. Kennedy is still there next to the ship in the bottle and the crucifix.
Once you’re walking home alone from school. Even though it’s only three o’clock, the sky is gray as the inside of Ma’s spaghetti pot. And even though it’s only November, the trees are bare as the pantry.
You are seven, and sad. Maybe you missed a word in spelling bee, or only got a 99 on your math test. Maybe your friend Fat Donna walked home with Skinny Donna instead of you. Maybe your crooked knees have scabs from falling down on the ice the week before. Maybe you’re cold, but thinking what’s the use of rushing home where you’ll only be colder?
Or maybe sad is just the way you were born and always will be.
You have eyes for anything that shines. Crossing from First to Second Street, you see it lying by the curb: a bright copper penny. You snatch it up.
They say if you find a penny lying heads-up, someone is watching over you from heaven.
You only know one person in heaven. Gramma used to live in your house, but so long ago it seems like a dream. You hardly remember her, except that she wore cat glasses and smelled like Jean Naté talcum powder when you sat in her lap.
Gramma came and went, back and forth, from ‘meriga to Italia—on the Andrea Doria, the boat that later sunk to the bottom of the ocean off Nantucket, and the Cristoforo Colombo, the big ship that carried Michelangelo’s Pietà from Rome to Flushing Meadows for the 1964 World’s Fair.
From Italy Gramma brought back a shell-studded gondola, a statue of our Lady of Mount Carmel, and a hand-painted wooden wedding cart. She also brought back pink and yellow paper money worth nulla in the United States. After Gramma dies, Ma finds a wad of lire hidden in her purse and tells Da, You might as well wipe your cul with that.
You pinch the penny you found between your fingers and look up through the bare branches. You want to see Gramma looking down at you from heaven through her silver cat glasses. But there’s nothing but clouds above.
You keep walking home, past the rusty chain link fences that separate the two- and three-family houses and the cigarette packs and gum wrappers crushed in the gutter. You can’t see Gramma. You can’t smell her. But if you listen hard, you can hear her voice, speaking a language—happy as the jingle of coins in a pocket—once heard in your house but now no longer spoken.
Rita Ciresi is author of the novels Bring Back My Body to Me, Pink Slip, Blue Italian, and Remind Me Again Why I Married You, and three award-winning story collections, Second Wife, Sometimes I Dream in Italian, and Mother Rocket. She is professor of English at the University of South Florida and fiction editor of 2 Bridges Review. Visit her website at www.ritaciresi.com.