Monday, September 18, 2017

#244: "Go Back to Where You Came From" by Rita Ciresi

~This essay previously appeared in Divergent Voices (2014).

            Like everything else in our house that plugs into a (working) electrical socket, the record player comes on The Truck. My father knows a guy. Who knows a guy. Who knows a guy. You never know which guy will barrel The Truck up our steep asphalt driveway: Ugly. Shorty. The Schnozz. Big Willy.
            Whoever si chiama, the guy flings open the back of the truck and deposits the unsealed box on the back porch. No money changes hands, at least in front of my mother. 
            I don't ask no questions, Ma says.
            The record player comes in the swankiest color of 1967: avocado green. My three sisters and I haul it into the living room and drop to our knees to worship it—like it's the Archbishop's gold ring that contains a sliver of Christ's cross. 
            Sister Uno plugs it in. Sister Due puts the 45 on the turntable. Sister Tre pushes the lever that makes the record drop and the arm lurch over. 
            The speakers screech.
            I cover my ears. The record player is a piece-a-shit, like everything else in our house—the washing machine that doesn't wash, the dryer that doesn't dry, the baccaus that clogs so often I am terrified to cacca in it.
            Needs a needle, Sister Uno says.
            Ma heads for her sewing box. Sister Due digs through the Styrofoam and plucks out a silver stylus, thin as the slivers Ma yanks out of the bottom of our feet when we don't listen to her (you kids, you stunod kids, you don't listen to me, you never listen!), and walk barefoot on the Seaside Heights boardwalk. 
            The needle picks up every pop and scratch on the record. Then a deep, commanding voice enters our living room: Welcome to Italian One. Lesson One. Greetings. Listen and repeat. 
            We listen. But do not repeat. 
            Buon giorno, Signora Rossi, come stai? (Ding!)
            Bene, grazie, e Lei? (Ding!)

            My father gets that look on his face, like when he turns the key in the ignition and the car won't start. My mother squints at the spinning record. I check the box to make sure my sister didn't accidentally bring home records in some swanky language, like French.
            Ma is the first to voice it: That don't sound like no 'talian I ever heard.
            Then she stomps off to the kitchen. She don't got time to listen to this fancy fazool.  She got her floor to mop, her whites to wash, her macaroni to make.
            Good morning, Mrs. Rossi. How are you?
            Very well, thank you, and you?
            Ma is right: This 'talian sounds nothing like our Italian. But this English sounds even less like our 'merigan.
            Nobody we conosce says good morning (unless they want to hear: Oh yeah?  What's good about it?). When Ugly or Shorty or The Schnozz ask my father Che si dice?—what’s the word?—he replies with a gravelly sound. Urrrgh, he goes. Like the engine that won't turn over. And then—just in case you didn't capisce him the first time—he goes urrrgh again.
            My father picks up Sister Uno's Italian textbook. It looks strano in his big hairy hands—like he's grabbed onto something he never would hold—a cat, a dog, a baby. On the front of the book is a map of Italy. But it just shows the boot. The island where my father came from—what we call laggiù, over there—has gotten kicked onto the back cover.
            My father opens the book, so I dare to look over his shoulder. Inside are gondolas and gladiators and fountains, the Last Supper and Sophia Loren, and that place that looks like Yankee Stadium if it were left to rot for hundreds of years. The 'talians in these pictures—the men in pressed linen suits, the women in bouffant hairdos and heels, real leather purses hooked over their elbows—strut like peacocks down the street. They sit under bright umbrellas in outdoor cafes, teeny tiny cups of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Their children are clean and well-dressed. None of them have black eyes. Or lice. None of them look hungry.
            Without a word, my father closes the book and goes into the backyard to smoke a stogie. I'm dying to look closer at the book. But I know better than to pick it up, at least not when my mother can see me. You learn how to read in first grade, Ma says as she pries my sisters' books from my hands. You learn how to write fancy in third. You learn how to talk another language in the seventh!
            I am in the second grade. But I already speeg 'talian. I think. I know how to say everything important: Stop. Again. Enough. More. Wake up. Wait up. Listen up. Shut up.  Eat up. Up yours. Damn you. F you. Your sister's a _____.  Your brother's a ______. Your father's a—
            Go back, I know how to say. Go back to where you came from. 
But I don't know how to say Go back to where you belong.
            The record spins. My sisters make la-dee-dah Queen of England faces as they call out, Very well, thank you, and you? They stick out their as-yet-nonexistent tits when they say buona sera and stick out their guls when they say arrivederci
            The Italians on the record, they tell me, are googalootz. But the book—when I finally get to sneak a peek at it—is even more stunod. Inside, everything is spelled wrong. Wherever there's an O, there should be a U. Wherever a P, a B. The Fs should be Vs. And where is the H after every S? We dust our mother's statue of San Giuseppi with a shoog and drain our macaroni in a shcallabasta and toast to your health ashalood and take off our shcarpe and climb the schaalay—the stairs—to go to bed.  
            I look, in vain, for ashalood and ahbeetz and du'man. But even when I recognize a word on the record or on the page, the accents are in the wrong place. A cousin is a cugino, which we call a GOO-geen. They call their aunties ZEE-ah, but we say zee-AH.  "Get in the car," my father hollers. "We're going to zee-AH's." My father's got zee-AHs coming out of his eyes, nose, ears, mouth, and gulo. When we visit a zee-AH, we never know where we might end up—New Haven, East Haven, West Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, Baltimore. 
            On the flip side of the record—“Chapter Two: Going Places”—there seems to be mass confusion. Where in the world is Mrs. Rossi? Mr. Rossi? Their son Marco? Their daughter Vittoria?
            Man oh man, these Italians get around. They go to all sorts of fancy-pants places:  al cinema, al teatro, al museo, al parco, all'universita.
            Where do we go? Mass. Novena. Catechism. Bingo! The funeral parlor. The cemetery. Right field, Yankee Stadium. Left field, Shea. The dogs. The horses. Vietnam. Jail.
            I like to go to the liburry. The liburry is where Curious George and The Cat in the Hat and Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan and Wendy and The Little Princess live. The liburry is where my mother and father are not.
            In the liburry, you gotta state zitte. Which suits me just fine. My sisters are real quaquaraquas. Big mouths. Chiachierrones. But I hate the sound of my own voice. I don't stutter—at least not as bad as my Gugino Carlooch who everybody calls P-p-porky P-pig. Still, when I open my lips to say something I haven't memorized, words catch like wet sand in the back of my throat.
            I can pray with ease. Hail Mary, full of grace. Now I lay me down to sleep. 
            At Mass I can chant the Latin—dominus vobiscum—in my head.
            And when I sing—oh, how I love to sing!—le parole swoop out of my mouth like swallows:     
            You're a grand old flag!
            Wednesday is Prince Day, up and down the street! 
Bah-bah-bah, botch-a-me, bambino, bah-bah-bo, bo, boca piccolino.
            I can even get through Supercalifragiliciousexpealladocious (even though the sound of it is really quite atrocious!) without tripping on a single syllable.
            At school, I can recite any poem:
            Whose woods these are I think I know! 
            I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree! 
            and my favorite:  
            In fourteen hundred ninety-two
            Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
            He had three ships and left from Spain;
            He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.
            He sailed by night; he sailed by day;
            He used the stars to find his way.
            A compass also helped him know
            How to find the way to go.
            I wish. . . I wish. . . I wish I were Columbus. I wish I had a compass to hold in my hand, so I could watch the needle swing drunkenly from side to side before it finally gives me the right direction. On summer nights I lie on the still-hot hood of my father's Galaxy 500 and try to find the North Star. But light from the gas station on the corner floods our backyard, and so I have to imagine the stars that would help me find my way. 
            My sister says the only way out of this house is in a coffin. But my father has a body built to block doors. And that he does. He stands in front of the only way in and out of our house—the back door—a lit stogie in his hand, three inches of ash threatening to drop to the cracked linoleum. He is the finger in our face that becomes the fist. He never says our names, just juts out his chin. You, he goes to my sisters. Eddu, dovvai? Where you goin'? Where do you think you're goin'?
            My father has the last word: You're not going nowhere
            That's what he thinks. But I know. I know I can go anywhere in my head: Madagascar, the moon, college.
            I can even make the boat go backwards.
            With one long mournful honk of the foghorn, it backs away from the candy-colored castle with the big American flag inside. My father, my mother, my sisters and I stand on the deck and blow kisses to the Lady with the Lamp who guards the harbor.
            Columbus sailed the ocean blue
            blue ocean the sailed Columbus
            I sleep for seven days and seven nights. And when I wake, I am in my father's arms. He carries me down the wooden plank onto the dock, where sweaty shirtless men offload large leather suitcases and black steamer trunks. 
            Up the steep hill my father carries me. Behind us, my mother herds my sisters, like bleating goats, into the narrow alleys where stucco buildings faded the colors of mustard and salmon and sunset are crisscrossed with clotheslines, until we surface onto the piazza, where old men lean on canes and young women pull tin buckets out of the circular well. Church bells ring. Donkey droppings pulse in the sun. We keep winding through the alleys to the top of the hill, where in the distance looms a volcano that, if it starts to spit, will force us to run down to the sea to escape the flood of lava that will roll down the strade. But for now it is quiet.
            My father stops in front of the last crumbling house on the street. There is no front door where the front door should be. No screens on the windows. But in the back, there is a wooden fence. And beyond the gate, c'e un giardino. There is a garden. And a waft of basil. Tomatoes fatten on the vine. Lemons hang on the tree. 
            Under the white wooden arbor stand our nonnis. My grandmother has no shoes.  My grandfather has no teeth. When my father sets me down, the cobblestones are warm and smooth and welcoming beneath the soles of my own bare feet.
            We stand outside the gate and look in. I understand what my grandparents say without them even speaking a word. They gesture with their hands. What took you so long? Come in. Sit down. Make yourself at home. Have a little something to eat.

            I have long wanted to write about the mishmash of English and Sicilian and Neapolitan dialects I heard spoken in my childhood home.  But I wasn't sure how to approach the topic.  This short, impressionistic essay was born when I focused on the avocado green record player my father brought home to help my oldest sister study "real Italian." From there, the piece became a free-for-all exploration of language and identity. I am grateful to Redux for giving my story second life. 
Rita Ciresi is the author of the novels Bring Back My Body to Me, Pink Slip, Blue Italian, and Remind Me Again Why I Married You and the story collections Sometimes I Dream in Italian and Mother Rocket.  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.  Visit her website at

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