Mauro Altamura


 “Today’s our day, Senator. We’re gonna hit big.” Gramps’ arms wrap me close, and I believe him. He tears a flap from the Saturday morning doughnut box on the kitchen table, writes down our usual numbers: 608 for my birthday; 201 and 105, for his and Grandma’s. We’ll figure out two more for the five we bet each day. 

     Breezy blue sky fills the window behind him, too warm for the last day of September. Grandma ducks back in from leaning out the other window, plops a handful of grayed, wood clothespins on the table. They roll next to the espresso she’s made for Gramps. The smell is roasted chestnuts, but we’re nowhere near Christmas. She’s mopped the kitchen, washed our shirts in the sink, and just hung them out. They whip-snap in the wind above fat tomcats who fight over rotten trash and skinny rats. Soon we’ll sniff tomato sauce and meatballs simmering for tomorrow’s lunch. Maybe my mom will come to eat with us if her work schedule doesn’t gets in the way. Grandma scoots to the other end of the apartment to make the beds. 

     “What’d you dream about last night?” Gramps asks when Grandma’s out of sight.

     “We went to the dentist. Just me and you. I got a tooth pulled. It didn’t hurt and there was no blood.”

     “No pain? No blood?”

    Grandpa opens the Black Cat Dream Book for a look. “So?” 

     “So the dentist dropped the tooth in my palm and I squeezed. When I opened my hand, the tooth was gone.”  

    “Just like that.” I hold up my empty hand, same as the dream. “Nothing.”

     “Missing teeth, huh?” 

     “Not missing. Disappeared.”
    “Right.” Even though the we’ve got this year’s edition – 1961 –  olive oil and coffee stains have smudged the cat’s silhouette on the yellow cover. “Let’s see if they’ve got disappearing teeth.” 

     With forty pages of subjects matched to three digit combinations, the book tells us exactly what number to play. Gramps’s finger traces down the alphabet until he finds the section for teeth. “They’ve only got missing. Nothing for disappeared. How about toothache?
    “No. Nothing hurt. We gotta use missing.”

     Gramps stares out the kitchen window, looking for something important. After a minute he reads the Black Cat. “Missing teeth. 267. That’s a good one. We’ll box it.” 

     In case 672 or 726 or another combo comes out, we’ll still make ten bucks on a twenty-five cent bet. 

     “Your dream now, Gramps, ” I say.

     “Me, you and Grandma were at Yankee Stadium. A big game. But no one stayed for the end. Just us. Even Grandma left.”

     I like that. Me and him. 

     Gramps is all hopped-up about the Yankees and Roger Maris. We watched all summer as Maris and Mantle made a run at Ruth’s home run record. Everyone wanted Mickey to break it. He’s full of laughs on TV, smiles in the newspaper. But Mick dropped out mid-August, couldn’t take the heat. Bum knees, too. Roger kept going. Last spring I saw Maris on TV, smoking in the dugout. I’ve been rooting for him ever since. Now he’s got sixty, tied with the Babe. Tomorrow’s his last shot.

     “OK, Senator.” Gramps finds baseball in the book, gets its number partner. “116. There’s our five.” He writes the numbers on the torn flap. “We hit on this a couple of weeks ago, right?” Gramps has his finger in his ear, like he’s trying to pull something out.

     “We played 611, Gramps. Fifteen bucks.”
    “Good call.” 

     Everyone uses the Black Cat. We’re no different, trying to hit, make some cash, get help anywhere we can. 

     “Does everyone’s dreams get the same number?” I asked Gramps once. “How do the Black Cat people figure the right number to go with the right dream?”

     He thought for a few seconds. “It’s a system.” 

     That was all I got.

     Gramps hands me the list and five quarters for the bets. “Keep your eyes open for trouble.”

     As if she was called, Grandma waltzes back into the kitchen. Worn out socks sink around her ankles, her housedress blows into the middle of our transaction. I could scoot right now, avoid Grandma’s yak-yak about money and food, the song and dance that fills all our family talks. But I can’t desert Grandpa now. I stuff the list down the front of my briefs. Grandma misses the whole thing. Innocent Gramps and me stand in front of her, sweetest four eyes you’ve ever seen. She gives each of us a kiss, her lips soft as my pillow. We’re in the clear, for now. Grandma’s not happy about our numbers game. Especially since we lose a buck and a quarter most days while she has to stretch any dollar she gets. Not to mention how Gramps has got me involved in the rackets.

     “Keep out of trouble. And watch him,” she says to Gramps.

     “I’m twelve, Grandma. No one’s got to watch me.” 

     “You’re still a boy.” She looks at us, then says to Gramps, “You’re wasting everything, for you and him.” 

     Grandpa holds his hat in his hand. “Don’t worry, Stella.” A bead of sweat rolls down his forehead. He holds her hand and moves it to his chest. “Honest.”

     Grandma shakes her head, hands over eyes. 

     We run down three flights, to the stoop. Get out while we can.

     “Let’s put in those bets,” Gramps says. “We only have a few minutes.”

     Pop Murray’s tenement across the street leans to the left, rattling with busted windows, half the apartments empty. 

     “When you dream about teeth, that’s a brand new start.” Gramps looks up at Pop’s window.  “Changing to something different than what you’d ever think.”

     Things changing? Not what I want.  

     “Get that list out of your drawers. They’re winners.”

     I stick my hand in my pants, come up empty. A quick check tells me it’s not at my rear, either. “Gone.” I turn up my empty palm

     “You sure? Check again.” 

     I try once more, feel nothing but myself. 

     “Those were good numbers, Senator.” Gramps frowns, his brow wrinkles. “You remember the new ones?” 

     I shake my head. 

     “We’ll figure out some others.” 

     We don’t get many shots at making a hit. Three, four times a year, never big. If we go back upstairs to check the Black Cat, there’ll be a run-in with Grandma and we’ll miss Pop’s morning deadline. 

     “Let me give you two new ones,” I say. 

     Gramps hesitates. “Well…” He lights a cigarette, pulls in a chest’s worth of smoke, tears off part of the matchbook cover.  “OK. Give.”

      I see the number from Miss Betty’s building next to Pop’s. “750,” I say. “And 430,” my dad’s birthday, though I never knew for sure.

     Gramps scrawls on the cover. “All right. Get them up to Pop.” Everyone bets with Pop or Josie, the other bookie on the block. Gramps takes a look at his bookie’s window again. It’s closed. “You know, I’ll go myself.” He slips the new list out of my hand like he was picking my pocket. “Wait here.” 

     Here’s the line on the adult world: they do what they want, when they want, whether you like it or not. You just have to hope you’re not in the way of anything dangerous.

     I take up position on Pop’s stoop. Telephone wires above are hung with old sneakers. A pair of mine slung up this year. A cloud passes between the wires and stops, like it ran out of gas. The Henning brothers run by, arguing over the last bites of a Three Musketeers. Ralphie, the little one, hits brother Jimmy in his chops and scoots, crams the whole chocolate bar in his mouth. He’ll pay later for a few minutes of sweetness.

     Gramps is back quicker than I thought, jingling pocket change.

     “How’s Pop?” I ask. 

     “Pop will always make out fine. As long as he keeps his mouth shut.”  

     Gramps links his arm in mine and we walk. 


     Mom works all the time. She brought me to Grandma and Gramps when I was five, after my first day of kindergarten. Gramps reached out his hand and shook mine that day, clasped it hard like sealing a deal. 

     “You’ve got some shake there,” he said. I half expected him to spit in my palm to make it legit. “You’re going places. You’re gonna be a Senator.” He bounced me on his knee, shook out his slicked back white hair, and laughed loud. We shared our first glasses of wine, straight off the fire escape, mine 7-UP with just a couple of drops of homemade Chianti.  

     “You like it! It likes you!” Gramps read the simple slogan on the green soda bottle. “You see, it’s right here on the bottle. That’s all you gotta remember. You like it here in America and it will like you.” Gramps was all smiles. “You can do whatever you want.”

     Summer was still hanging around that day, like it would never disappear. After dinner we sat on the stoop and rolled our pants to our knees, waited out the day. We watched the moon rise. The streetlights came on one by one, like candles lit by an altar boy. The block buzzed with car horns, kids yelling, mom’s crying. We sat, took it all in, a show just for us. Grandma made up the couch for me that first night, sheets, a blanket and two pillows. A night-light. I was home.


     Josie DiMuro runs the best grocery store on the block. Pop Murray gets our numbers but Josie gets our smiles. Whenever I’ve asked Gramps about it, he cuts me off. 

     “Pop knows a lot of things.” He won’t give more than that. But what could Pop know? He’s hardly out of his crummy apartment. 

     Josie’s in a dress when we get there, hair fixed up. A couple of rings and shiny silver watch, long arms with meat on them. Her store is stacked too: bread, eggs, quarts of milk, cold-cuts, all the cheese you’d want. She’s got penny candy, soda, balsa wood planes and Spaldeens. She chases two kids caught in the act of five-fingering her Necco wafers, snarls, but does a quick turn-around when she sees our faces. Josie pours us a coffee each and butters our rolls. Her big teeth flash a smile like a brand new silver dollar. 

     “Bring this home to Stella.” After coffee, she stuffs bread and milk and some salami into a brown paper bag. 

     It’s hard to refuse anything that comes our way. Grandpa never does. Considering he barely ate when he was a kid, considering he jumped ship from Italy to stay here, considering he worked paving American streets and hauling American rocks, I guess he’ll always talks about how good we’ve got it.

     “Thanks.” Gramps tips his hat, gentleman-like, smiles his big smile. 

      Josie passes the bag and holds Gramps’ hand for a second. They both look goofy, open-mouthed, scrunched eyes. 

     We head to Adams Street, past Duke’s Billiards, where Puppy Ginsberg sits on a folding chair, a beat-up pillow to cushion his bottom.

     “Hey Puppy, how’s it hanging?” Gramps and Puppy have no conversation beside the daily question about privates.

    Puppy smiles, his eyes watery and red. His shaved head is held together by huge red ears. He never says a word. I wonder why and lay the question on Grandpa. 

     “He can’t.” Gramps grips my shoulders. “His brains are shot from the war. He saw his pals die, babies and women murdered, and kept his eyes open. Don’t go into the army.” Gramps wags his finger. “You never want to see murder.”  

     Grandma is outside the house with some of the women from the block. They sit on a wooden bench next to the stoop, all talking at the same time. Gramps hands the bag of groceries to Grandma.

     “Another gift from Josie?” Grandma pokes her nose into the great aroma. “She’s really nice to us, isn’t she?” Her eyes slit.
    “She likes us.” Gramps’ voice is low. “She likes the kid.” 

     The other ladies mumble.

     “Watch it, now.” Grandma holds the bag close, scrunches the top in a tight ball. 

     Roberto and Orlando Aversa, twins who live in the apartment below us, yare in the lots across from the Baptists’ church. Roberto is whacking a Spaldeen to the Hennings and Martinez kids. 

     “Hey, Senator. C’mon. Catch some balls.” Roberto’s high flies send the kids up against the fence, trying to make a catch. I take my position in the middle. He smacks the ball so high it seems to stop for a second, floats above the clothes poles, higher than the roofs. The ball is lit by the sun, bright red, a miniature sun itself. Days later the Spaldeen comes down and smacks into our open palms. After each catch we hold our hands between our thighs to ease the sting. 

     “Get this one.” Roberto lofts a line drive that clears the fence, slams into and breaks the back window of a not yet empty building. A pasty-looking guy pops his head out of the hole. Everyone’s vanished but me. The head screams at the empty lot. I start to trot. 

     “Come back, I’m gonna call the cops,” the pasty guy yells.

     I turn around and stare for a second. His fat head and face get redder, his yelling louder. I’d never turn back, not for anything.

     I hook up with Gramps. We walk around the block and head back to Josie’s. Her cramped back room has a couple of fat leather chairs, both worn. Coffee’s on the stove, the smell almost like home. Her fridge is filled with cold cuts and juice, bottles of soda and milk. The TV’s always too loud and tuned to the ball game whenever the Yanks play. Josie and Gramps love watching. They aren’t so happy that Maris is the one who’s got the chance for the record. 

     “He’s a Polack, isn’t he?” Josie asks each time he’s hitting. 

     Gramps says, “No. A Yugo.” He leafs through the afternoon edition of the Daily News, stops at the racing results from Aqueduct. “None of ours hit.” He points to the bottom line, where the amount bet for the day is printed. The last three numbers are 756. 

     “Gramps! I was so close. Miss Betty’s address was where I got 750.” I gotta keep Miss Betty in mind.

     “Yeah. Close is good. Miss Betty’s good, too.” He checks Josie’s Black Cat. “267 and 116 for the teeth and baseball numbers. We didn’t blow it.” He smiles at me and then at Josie. “I can feel it, though. Something is coming.” 

 Gramps believes in all kinds of stories. He tells me about talking cats and invisible people, the Madonna rising out of the sea to save drowning sailors. His dead mother speaks to him when he shaves, and he pours a glass of wine every Sunday for his father, dead too, thirty years ago. Sometimes Gramps  puts out a plate for his old man and fills it with spaghetti. 

     I’m still wondering what’s up with Gramps taking the numbers himself this morning. Mostly he has me go to Pop’s alone and I try to slink in without the old bookie realizing I’m there. The bad days come when he’s sitting at the table waiting for me.  

     “Sit down, kiddo.” Pop Murray’ll pull out some stale cookies. I know I’m in for it then. The worst is when he wants to tell me about the War. What is it with these guys? They hang onto their Army stories like they want to join again. Everything I’ve read tells me it was an awful time that lasted too many years. These guys repeat the stories over and over, getting all smiley. Maybe they just needed to get out of town for a while.

     Before four-thirty Gramps lets me run our second round of numbers. Why didn’t he bring them? I asked. No reason. Like I said, that’s how adults work.

     Pop’s usually gawking out the window, waiting for whoever’s bringing him his afternoon cash, window blinds cracking around his head in the breeze as he drags on a Chesterfield. But the window’s shut tight today, which doesn’t figure in the heat. 

     His lights are out when I get up there, everything quiet. I open his door, lay the money on the kitchen table, a Formica job with old, polished steel chairs placed at four corners. 

     “Hey, Senator.” The voice is Miss Betty’s. I see she’s in bed with Pop. He’s out cold, snoring like a fat baby. His false teeth are in a glass of water, tiny bubbles escape from the plastic gums. She has the sheets over her chest. 

     “You here to leave your numbers?” she says.

     “What else?” 

     She winks and points to the door. “Make sure it’s locked, sweetie.”  

     I wink back, but it’s a code I can’t figure.

     “Tell your Gramps I’ll talk to him.”


     The sunset sends red flares onto our building’s windows. The snapshot of Pop and Miss Betty in bed buzzes my brain. She always keeps a low profile, walking down the street, smoking as much as she breathes. “Get a soda, honey,” she’ll say, have a smile and a dime, special for me. Never for the other kids. But there she was with Pop. Strange how people fall in love. 

     Grandma peers from the parlor window. The blinds go down and then flip closed. I don’t know if she saw me, but I’ll hear about it if she did. 

     I jump off Pop’s last concrete step, but instead of planting my feet on the sidewalk, I’m held up in the air, eyeball to eyeball with Sonny Boy. Miss Betty’s eldest lifts me by my waistband and pulls me close enough to see the saliva connecting his lips and his yellow teeth-cracks. Not a point of view I particularly care for. Or the smell. Old beer.

     “You see my mom, boy?” 

     I can’t give him anything but the truth. I learned early that mine is the best skin to save whenever there’s a choice. I nod my head up toward Pop’s and I’m back on solid ground.  

     Sonny is up the stairs in two long leaps. I follow, can’t miss this action. The sound of fist on flesh ends the silence of the hallway. Pop is rudely awakened and Miss Betty’s shrill screams follow.  

     “You keep your filthy hands off her.” Sonny’s standing over Pop when I peek into the apartment. Pop’s got a close-up view of the young man’s four knuckles and he’s smelling Sonny’s not-so-sweet breath, too. I expect the old man to whimper away in the corner. 

     “This is payment, Sonny.” Pop’s squeely laugh slides out, no plea. “Your old lady owes me and anyone else I say. That’s her job. Or tell me you don’t know your mamma’s business?” 

     I hear more flesh on flesh, a flop, a glass breaks. Sonny whizzes past, Miss Betty a kite sailing at the end of his long arm. 

     Pop sits up against the wall. A line of blood stains the white dishrag he holds to his nose. His set of teeth is in the corner among broken glass and spilled water. The gums have a bunch of empty sockets, like the busted-out windows on our block. The pearly whites mix with crumbs and dust balls on the linoleum.

     “Hey, kiddo.” Pop gums his words into mush. “You got your picks? Tell your Grandpa he’d better give me his afternoon numbers. He hasn’t hit for a few weeks.”

     I spy our list, pluck it out of the dusty floor as Pop wipes down his meaty face.  

     “I came up to deliver.” 

     “You’re OK kid. But keep an eye on your grandfather. He’s stirring things up.”

     “What the heck? My grandfather stirring things up?” I ask, but Pop goes mum.

     I tell Gramps about the incident at dinner. Grandma’s in and out of the kitchen, so it’s stop and go to keep things private.

     “Maybe it’s time to get away from this mess.” Gramps rubs his forehead, pulls on his face. “You stay in school, get your education. This is no way to make a living, Senator.”
    But life seems near perfect now. Food’s on the stove, there’s someplace to sleep, and me and Gramps are hanging together, playing numbers. So what if we don’t hit much? Maybe we’re never supposed to make money this way. Maybe something bad would happen if our luck turned. Even though Gramps keeps talking about things changing, I don’t think life could be better. 

     The hot air doesn’t move when night sets in. The street fills with old people and babies, everyone on folding chairs and benches. Grandma and Grandpa sit together, each talking to someone else. Kids suck down lemon ice and soda, play Ring-a-lario. Johnny the ice cream man pulls out every last Wonderbar or Creamsicle in his truck, even the ones with paper stuck and ink imprinted on the orange ice. We all try to put our arms into the freezer when he opens the truck’s little side compartment. Roberto’s in head first, feet out. Cold clouds float into the brutal heat as he waves his legs like a crazy guy. I’m up in the driver’s seat, ringing Johnny’s bells to the tune of Rudolph the Red Nosed, prime vantage to see the world. 

     A runt of a guy, a long sleeved shirt buttoned up to his neck, stands across the street. He’s not anyone I’ve ever seen. He climbs Pop’s steps, pauses a second, looks around. Gramps stands up and sees him. But Gramps doesn’t see me seeing the guy, who turns, shoots into the building.

     Five minutes later the runt’s out and doesn’t stop to see what Jefferson Street has to offer or even notice I’m watching. He trots toward Observer Highway and who knows where after that.

     I sneak away from the circus of noise and faces and one big party of a night. I’m in Pop’s hallway in no time. It’s dim, the stairs creak. I make the top, pause to spit straight through the banister separation to the ground floor. My glom lands on dark ground in the basement, a far-away splat that almost makes me sick. 

     Pop’s kitchen is cluttered with dirty dishes and newspapers, cardboard coffee cups with butts snuffed out. Life as usual. But there’s no radio or TV blaring. I’m thinking Miss Betty, and why bust in on them now, especially since I don’t need to see Pop’s fat ass or any other part of his sad body. But I know there’s gotta be some info that’ll give us an edge in the numbers game. I start in on the piles of paper on the table. No surprises. Scraps of cardboard, napkins, envelopes scrawled with numbers and amounts bet. Copies of the Black Cat are piled in a corner, out of the way. They date back to 1945. Sixteen years explaining dreams. I leaf through the first one, find the subject of teeth, and get the number: 732. Then I check teeth for 1946. That year it was 854. The book’s price, 25 cents, is marked in a bright red ink stamp. Every few years the price gets higher, the numbers change. This year’s edition is a buck. I look up teeth and just like in ours it’s 267. I guess they pick a different number each year so people keep buying.

     “C’mere, kiddo.” Pop ’s voice gargles through phlegm and blood. 

     The whole room feels like it’s stuffed with spit and dirt. Big welts circle his eyes and his t-shirt gets bloodier by the minute. Pop tilts his head toward a shelf above the sink. His teeth soak in a glass of water, looking down at both of us. 

     “Put my teeth in for me, huh”” 

     If you told me that I could and would put in a pair of false teeth for the sceeviest guy on the block, I’d say you were writing a story. But I can and I do. One bottom tooth is missing.

     “Thanks. I don’t like going out toothless.” He closes his mouth and stares into the dark. “You’re not gonna find anything in those books. They mean nothing.” He breathes hard, talks slow. “People believe something if they see it written. They think somebody who knows something wrote it.” He’s wheezing out words. “Especially people who can barely read. They think their dreams can be put into numbers, and the numbers will hit, and life will be different. It’s all a lie.” His coughs strain to catch up with his breath.

     “You OK, Pop ?”  


     “What happened?”

     “I’m out of business. Tell your grandfather he can play with Josie from now on.” His voice is a whisper. “Their secret’s safe. His debts all clear.” He reaches up and grabs my hand. “Make sure he watches out for Miss Betty. She’s gotta be looked after.”  


     Pop starts coughing and I get no answer. 

     “You want me to open the window for you, Pop ?” No answer again. His eyes are wide, still, and fixed on a point farther away than I can see.

     The cops nosed around that night, once Miss Betty found his body. I’ll never say a word about the runt guy, or my visit to Pop , or my intimate knowledge of an old man’s false teeth. Why should I? What would it get me? Everyone’s already pointing fingers at Sonny. Word is that he’ll get a job down in Spotswood at Bergen Point Amusement, spinning betting wheels for saps trying to win some cigarettes or pink pussy-cat dolls.

     The next day Gramps is already at Josie’s when I get there. They’re watching the Yankees’ last game. Maris’s last chance. 

     “You’re here before me, Gramps. What gives?” 

     “I’m watching history, Senator.” 

     “That’s not history. It’s nothing but a game.”  

     “What are they teaching you at school?” Gramps tosses me a twenty. “Go get yourself a cream soda. Get some burgers for all of us. Keep the change.” He opens the back of the paper and points to the bottom of the pony’s results. The three last numbers are 804. “Your mom’s birthday. On the nose. I put ten bucks down, had a hunch.” 

     At a five hundred-to-one payoff, that’s some serious money. Josie’s smile is plastered on her face. I don’t like it.

     “Not too bad for a day’s work, huh, Senator?”
    “Yeah.” I look at her, turn. “But why didn’t you let me know?”
    “I had to go fast with the hunch, Senator. I told you. A new beginning. This is just the start.”    

     “Oh. This is it.” Who needs new? What’s wrong with what we were?


     Our burgers steam in the bag. I stop short before going into Josie’s back room, so I can see inside without being noticed. She leans over Gramps, close to his body. Her hands are on his face and he’s looking up at her.

     “Pop wasn’t a bad guy,” Gramps says. 

     “He held your debts, he’d screw you.” Josie pinches Gramps’ cheeks.

     “No need to get rid of him for that.”
    “You gotta take care of things before they take care of you. That’s all. The hit went too far, but this is business, not a game.” 

     I’ve seen this before, one of those times when the world doubles itself and becomes a movie. You’re in the movie and watching at the same time. I see it all from far away, from the top of the building, looking down at the scene of the three of us. We’re all tiny, like ants. Josie leans in and kisses Gramps. Their lips connect and all of a sudden I’m close up, dropped from the building. I land in Gramps’ lap. I see the stubble on his face and the little hairs on Josie’s cheek. Spit moves from one mouth to the other, their lips pull when they break away. The make-up Josie uses to hide her wrinkles looks sloppy, a kid’s  messed up coloring book, one color piled on top of the other. The sound of the kiss plugs into my brain. I count their heartbeats. Gramps and Josie lock hands. He pulls and she flops into his lap. There’s no room left for me anymore.  

    I’m about to walk out when the play-by-play of the ball game booms from the back of the store. Maris is at the plate. The crowd roars, goes quiet, then louder, with lots of cheers, plenty of boos. 

     “Hey, Senator, come here!” Grandpa’s all excited. “Maris did it. Maris hit sixty-one. Look at this, will ya!”  

     That’s all I hear. 

     Outside, trash is piled at the curb, bottle tops and blackened bubble gum stuck in the tar. I run up the street. Grandma’s on the stoop, hand over her eyes, looking at the sky. Before she sees me, I cross over, through the empty lots. I look over my shoulder for a second, then I’m gone.

Mauro Altamura received a 2022 Prose Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and several visual arts fellowships from NJSCA, NYSCA, and the NEA. His prose has been published in Ovunque Siamo, Crimereads, and Yolk Literary. He lives in Jersey City, NJ.