Maria Lisella


Once upon a time, there was a man named Domenico who was in a hurry to be an American. One thing he took note of upon arriving on Ellis Island and finally Carmine St. in Greenwich Village was that Americans – or those who arrived before him – had pets.

Back in Calabria the only animals one lived nearby with were on farms – the cats to chase the rats and mice, the dogs to bark at thieves and other predators – he never thought of them as pets or members of a human family, but rather as animals in service to man.

As he traveled up and downtown hawking vegetables and fruit, he saw the uptown dandies and ladies accompanied by “pets.” These pets sat on laps and walked attached to leashes. But, to live life in the back of a fruit and vegetable store with five children from four marriages was no picnic, and to add to the mayhem, an American pet, his wife, who was like Vesuvius when she was crossed, said un cane was out of the question.

Years later, the family moved to the countryside in Queens where there were big expanses of empty lots that Domenico transformed into an orto, a small, Italian farm for his family. For sure, he neither owned nor did anyone give him the land beyond the house’s property line, he simply planted everything he wanted on it clear to the next boulevard because, to tell the truth, no one was looking.

He fenced the area in, and no one paid any attention to it. He grew zucchini, potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, peach, apple and cherry trees plus the mulberry trees seem to grow wild. And you could smell the basil on the breeze from Jamaica Bay. What was missing, was un cane, he told himself.

Domenico met other Calabrese men in the afternoons to talk about where to buy the best grapes in Queens for the wines he planned to make in the unfinished basement of the house. He found the oak casks he wanted easy enough. He could fit just two in the little cave in the basement; it was space enough for this year’s wine, and next year’s plus a little grape press that was stained purple with the very first harvest.

How to find un cane however. It was the 1950s, the days of Lassie on TV, the days of  dogs who were man’s best friend. His penchant to be an American, however, did not stretch quite that far, he wanted un cane to be at least a watchdog, and maybe a companion to him only.

Domenico had his eye on the pharmacist’s collie-spitz bitch that was about to give birth. His stepson Nicky had a German shepherd named Rex but he died after a short battle of mourning when Nicky caught pneumonia, was driven to the hospital, and Rex followed the ambulance. Rex snuck into the hospital unnoticed and planted himself beneath Nicky’s bed.  At the moment Nicky died, Rex took his last breath.

Domenico found such loyalty amazing.

So what little the family knew of dogs, pets and America, supernatural did not begin to explain what they might expect of the first dog to enter their lives.

After smoking the rest of his De Nobili that day in Baisely Park with his paisani, he went to Doc Baumann’s to get a look at the puppy. It was the color of peanut butter, another American novelty, so he scooped it up and took it home and named it Skippy for the peanut butter Americans also ate. Since he had such a thick accent, Domenico pronounced the dog’s name as Shkeepe.

He had already built a red-shingled house attached to the back of the family’s house for un cane. But when it was just a puppy, Domenico feared it would not survive the winter. He needn’t have worried.

Right from the start, the little dog walked into its little shingled house and got comfortable and looked up at Domenico and in a small voice, said, “Grazie.”

It was as if it recognized Domenico as a mature man who owned him, he was no child, and that he was to be a serious dog. There would be no tricks to be performed for biscuits and privileges and children.

And so began Shkeepe’s life in South Jamaica, Queens. He guarded the yard, the grandchildren, and barked the rats away. And when he was taken for a walk, he did something quite magical.

When his master would take him to the park, he’d loosen the metal chain leash to let Shkeepe run free. But he did not run nor did he walk.

He’d jump into the water, no matter what temperature. He dog-paddled the perimeter of Baisley Pond Park as Domenico walked beside him on the promenade. Side by side they walked two or three times a day.

The pond was legendary in itself: in the 1850s, while dredging it, the remains of an American Mastodon (Mammut americanum) were discovered, including five molars and a bone fragment. They say the Mastodon likely lived in the area almost 10,000 years ago, just after the last Ice Age. But Shkeepe was a dog and he need not know the history of his watering hole only that it was filled with gigantic lily pads, snapping turtles, bullfrogs to say nothing of the eight species of dragonflies.

Together, Shkeepe and Domenico lived quite happily. His Vesuvius of a wife complained only now and then that the dog required extra food, but mostly she did not mind as the dog required Domenico’s attention so often, she could be free from serving Domenico.

One day, Domenico went to the store with Shkeepe on a leash. He would be just one minute so he absentmindedly attached his leash to the bumper of a car. Anyone could see the danger of this, but Domenico did not. He was so sure everyone knew Shkeepe by then and no one would have stolen him in the first place but dogs are dogs so you never know what they know.

Following his errand, Domenico emerged from the store only to find the car with the bumper and Shkeepe had vanished up Jamaica Avenue. Il cane was missing. With no internet or cell phones, Domenico had to be satisfied with running through the streets and asking if people saw what direction the car took.

When the car stopped at a red light, the driver was alerted that a dog was panting and running behind the car at a lightening speed that kept up with the car. The driver alighted from the car, saw the dog with its bloody paws, its panting and was at a loss as to what to do.

He brought Shkeepe to a local veterinarian. Lucky for Domenico and Shkeepe, the dog wore a collar and a license that identified him. The vet called Domenico to come for the dog who appeared to be on his last legs and offered little hope he would survive the trauma.

The moment Domenico entered the room where Shkeepe lay listless on a stainless steel table, he gasped. He called him softly, Shkeepe, mi dispiace poverino, mi dispiace; Skippy I am so sorry you poor thing, so sorry. At the sound of Domenico’s voice, Shkeepe stood upright on the table and peed a stream of hot golden urine, a sign of life if ever there was one.



Maria Lisella is the sixth Queens Poet Laureate 2015-2018. Her work has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Poetry Prize, her collections include Thieves in the Family (NYQ Books),  and two chapbooks: Amore on Hope Street, and Two Naked Feet. Her work has been published widely. She co-curates the Italian American Writers Association readings, contributes to USA TODAY, and the online bilingual publications, La Voce di New York and BridgePugliaUSA.