There wasn’t a creature in my closet, a ghost in the attic or a clown under my bed. My childhood monster had wild black hair adorned with a silver barrette, a pointed chin that met pouty lips, and long skinny fingers trimmed with red fingernails, and she was screwing my father. Each time she opened her mouth to kiss him, she stole light from my mother’s life. Each night my mother howled out her bedroom window beckoning for my father to return, she lost another bit of herself, those bits that a person needs to feel happy. Years later, when my mother needed surgery to replace a faulty valve, I believed the pain of it all had slowly disfigured her heart.
At dusk when the house was quiet, and I missed my father’s cheerfulness and attention, I’d walk into their dim bedroom. She’d be seated at her picture window with slouched shoulders that would only rise when she sighed. “Where’s daddy,” I would ask. “He’s out with MariaLaPuttana,” was usually her reply. Sometimes it was said it flatly, as if she were telling me that he was at a cafe or at the Italian Club playing cards. If it was late, she’d hiss, “He’s out dancing with that no good MariaLaPuttana.” And If it was very late, I’d struggle to see her plump form in the moonlight. She would whisper and shake her head: “He’s out with MariaLaPuttana. Why? Why does he do this to me?” Sometimes I’d walk away and sometimes I cried with her. She wept the hardest when she told me that MariaLaPuttana was once her best friend. I wondered whom she missed more.
Her crying woke me on a night that the moon seemed to be hiding and not even the tiniest glare from the street lights brightened her window. She sat in darkness and panted her pain into the air. Her sadness so foul that I hesitated walking toward her.
“Mommy, I can’t see.”
“Be careful. Go back to bed.”
I climbed on her lap.
“Why are you crying?”
“Because I don’t know if that bastardo is coming home.”
“Don’t call him that just because he likes to go out dancing. I asked him to take you and he said you step on his toes. Why don’t you learn how to dance so you can go with him?”
“You don’t know anything. You always stick up for him. Someday, I’ll open this window and jump. Then you’ll all feel sorry. Now be good and go to bed and tomorrow Mommy will take you to buy your new school shoes.”
I was excited about the shoes, but I wished she would stop crying. It was no use. I had no power over her moods. Only Daddy did.
Sometimes, I’d go into her room and find my happy mother. She didn’t slump in her chair or scratch at the window. She was seated strong at her sewing machine with the joy and focus of a concertmaster. This mother fried dough and drizzled it with powdered sugar and let me eat all that I wanted. She cracked my toes and farted on my head and hit me with pillows. She let me put makeup on her and style her white hair and promised that she would give me her gold hoop earrings someday. I would teach her how to read simple English words and pronounce them without her funny accent. She would tell me about Sicily and how she loved to jump rope as a girl, but how she had to stop when her blooming breasts couldn’t be hidden from the boys because boys did bad things to girls with big breasts. She said her father was a saint, God bless his soul, who raised her alone after her mother died. (Hard as she tried by squeezing her eyes shut tight, my mother could only remember the wave of her mother’s skirt and a shadow.) No, they didn’t make men like that anymore. She had hoped to marry someone who was half the man her father was. She didn’t, and he wasn’t. She was told when it was time for marriage and motherhood, and these things she agreed to. Later she was told it was time to go to America, but this she refused to do while her father was alive. And when her father died, her broken heart slowed her breast milk from flowing and her son cried from hunger. One of his legs began to shrivel and the doctor warned that she would have to choose between crying for her father or her newborn’s health. She chose her newborn. Then two more came. More mouths. More hunger. It was time to go to America. My father went first to settle and earn money. Bitter tongues taunted that he might abandon her, like other men had done. He didn’t. Their voyage tickets came after a year. And she went to America with three kids, trusting that her husband was hers alone. Her fourth child was born exactly ten months after she landed on American soil because she said, that’s how men are. She felt out of place. She didn’t speak the language. Even other Italians, the Americanized ones, made fun of her. But she made a friend, trusting her with secrets and her husband. She had been a fool and now she didn’t trust her own shoes. She would repeat these stories and embellish more with each telling. Through her, I knew my grandfather. I knew her town people, made up of good friends, relatives, some jerks and a few perverts. She’d sometimes point to the black and white photo that hung on the wall to put names to the faces. Remembering them brought her home and away from a house, city and country where she was dismissed, mocked and treated like an idiot.
Sometimes the stories were dreamlike musings told from her window chair, sometimes she regaled boisterously from her sewing machine with a pinning needle held between her teeth and sometimes they were whispered into my ear as she played with my hair while I lay on the couch with my head on her lap. Our moments so often bashed by the sound of a ringing yellow telephone that seemed to taunt us from the kitchen wall.
She’d hurry to answer it.
“Hello? Hello? Answer me.”
“Hello? Hello? You no good, dirty puttana. Stop calling my house.”
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.
“I said, stop calling!”
The calls would continue until she dropped the receiver on the table and left the phone off the hook. My happy mother would curl and shrink and disappear somewhere along the walk from the kitchen to her bedroom window.
Theresa Bellone is from Boston, MA. She holds a BA in Sociology from University of Massachusetts Boston and is currently working on her first novel, essays and short stories. She has earned spots for writing residencies at the Pine Manor College Summer Solstice Conference in Chestnut Hill, MA and The Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT. She was awarded a scholarship from Grub Street Writing Center in Boston, MA to attend the Muse and the Marketplace Conference. When she’s not agonizing on her millionth novel draft, she enjoys time with her son, friends, food and old 1990s reruns.