Your ma sings this song when she mops the kitchen floor:
You don’t know what’s delightful about pushing a mop. But you like this song because almost every other d-word scares the fazool out of you.
Your brother Gino got drafted.
Miss Teacher gives you demerits.
Sister Dominic tells you to denounce the devil because he is the Prince of Darkness and the Lord of Death.
At school you sing another d-song:
Four little ducks went out one day
O’er the hills and far away
Mother Duck said quack quack quack
So only three little ducks came quacking back!
What happened to the fourth little duck? Dov’è? Dov’è?
At school there is a Fat Donna and a Skinny Donna. Tall Donna and Midget Donna. Smart Donna and Dumb Donna.
You’re glad you’re not a Donna because they cancel each other out.
On Third Street live the D’Angelos and DeMarcos.
On Second Street: Del Vecchios and D’Agostinos.
First Street: D’Onofrios, D’Emilios.
Going over the Dees! you holler as you run out the back door. Ma never asks which ones. All the Dee houses are alike. The porch is crumbling. The paint is peeling. A red cornicello hangs on the back door to ward off evil spirits. Mary stands on a half shell in the backyard.
Sometimes there’s an older brother there. Sometimes not.
But there’s always doilies. Doilies everywhere. Your zias and cugine crochet the doilies, which come in two flavors: plain vanilla or tri-color spumoni. Doilies must be draped on the back of every couch and every chair and on top of every toilet tank.
They’re under every knickknack. Every music box. Every porcelain Virgin Mary. Every plastic saint. Every framed photo of a boy in uniform.
Doilies are supposed to cover things, but if you look through them hard enough you can still see the dust underneath.
The Dark scares you so much it makes cicoria grow in your stomach. But the world is full of dark places: the cellar, where Ma sends you to fetch a can of Progresso tomatoes. The attic, where Ma brings up a broom in case there are bats.
In December it turns dark so early Ma turns on the lights when you get home from school. At night the dark is all around you, like in that story your brother read to you from Reader’s Digest: “I Was Buried Alive!”
The Devil, Sister Dominic says, lurks everywhere. He could be quivering in the green Jell-O Ma makes when you have a sore throat, or crouching beneath the beans in your bowl of pasta fagioli. He could be hanging on, with all four claws, to the chain-link fence that separates Di Stefano’s gas station from DiGiorno’s funeral parlor.
The devil lives in Da Nang. Where the boys go. And the war is.
Miss Teacher takes you on a field trip to the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Inside it’s stone cold and spooky as a church. But there are no crucifixes or statues of saints. Instead, there are skeletons of dinosaurs so tall it hurts your neck to look up at them. On the back wall there’s a mural called THE AGE OF REPTILES that shows Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping through the swamp, triceratops lumbering through the grass, and brontosaurus lurking in the water.
The boys love the dinosaurs. But dinosaurs give you nightmares because once upon a time they were here on earth, but now they’re not.
There are a lot of different ways to make things disappear.
You can cross them out with a pencil.
You can rub them out with a pink rubber eraser.
You can pull a plug.
You can snuff a candle.
You can not-water a plant.
You can poop so hard your brains come out of your culo. Or so your brother once told you.
You can get so mad your heart explodes like a volcano.
You can stop your car on the railroad tracks where the sign says DO NOT STOP ON THE TRACKS.
You can jump off the Q Bridge.
You can be on the wrong end of a gun.
You can go to war and never come back.
Because you’re a little girl, you don’t get drafted. So you don’t die. You grow up and up and up and now when people say, Tell us about your happy Italian childhood, you don’t tell them about the devil or the death by duck song. You don’t say: Fat Donna and the dinosaurs. Or Da Nang. You don’t say the fourth letter of the alfabeto was the scariest letter of the alfabeto.
You say: My brother was buried in Veterans Cemetery. And then the light bulb blew in the kitchen and my mother made me stand on the stepstool and do dishes in the dark.
• • •
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 two award-winning story collections, Sometimes I Dream in Italian and Mother Rocket. Her collection of flash fiction, Second Wife, is winner of the Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Competition and will be published in 2018 by Burrow Press. She is professor of English at the University of South Florida, a faculty mentor for the Bay Path University MFA program in creative nonfiction, and fiction editor of 2 Bridges Review.