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Narete is a borough of a very industrious city of North Italy. It was a small area. During the day it was mostly quiet, but early in the morning and after sundown became very populated. The main road, Belfiore Rd., had at one side a very large textile factory and on the other side a pretty large size hospital. Thousands of people came to work in either place in the morning and went home after work at night. The roads were well paved and large. A few trees improved the outlook of the very busy thoroughfare. Almost everybody rode a bicycle. Bicycles were unknown to me at the time. In the beginning I would spend precious time, as I was going to work walking or taking the bus or train depending how far I went, looking in wonder at all those people on their bicycles speeding up on the road. The bicycles were multicolored; the people on them wore different clothing in many colors. They were talking and laughing. At times, the bell of the bicycles would ring for one reason or another creating an atmosphere of cheerful and compelling contentment.
My two younger brothers and I lived at the corner side of the road between Arnate Rd. and Belfiore Avenue in a very small flat which consisted of 2 medium size rooms (one upstairs and another downstairs). We shared the bathroom with another small family. The flat was not big enough for the three of us and the bathroom being in common with another family was a total inconvenience, but after our parents moved north to our city and into the apartment with us, we rented another place that was bigger and better. Nevertheless, at the time, we could not afford anything better because of a misfortune in our family business. I had left our little town in the south a few Months earlier. With the help of our aunt Michela, I worked mornings in a factory from 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM, and I worked afternoons as a fashion design teacher from 3:00 PM to 8:00 PM in Nolamy about 40 Km. away from Terana.
I didn't have time to take care of my two younger brothers who were going to school. At the time Tori was 16 years old and Demi 14. Tori went to school full time at the beginning, and then he had to work in the same embroidery factory where Demi worked. Demi had been working as a young trainee in the embroidery factory for some time. He felt like a confident grown up at his young age of 14. Demi was a quite responsible child, he tried his best to help in any way he could. He was the hardest hit by our financial misfortune. He had to make many sacrifices and he had to endure a great deal of humiliation. Demi always was the most loving of all of us. He is dependable and good hearted. He is of medium height, very thin, and very good looking. He missed our parents a lot. Every time he got paid he would ask me how much more money he had to earn so that our parents and the other two sisters, that were still at home, could come and be with us. I was very touched by his love for our family. At times, I could not hide the tears that came to my eyes, but at that time, I had to be strong for everybody.
Both boys did not know anything about keeping house, let alone cooking. I used to cook for them at night and leave lunch ready for them when they came back home. One day I forgot to cook, maybe because I was too tired. In the refrigerator there was always bread, cheese and salami. In the morning, I left the house before they were awake, and I didn't tell anyone that I had not made lunch for them. For the first time in his life Tori came home from school and did not have anything prepared to eat. He, evidently, didn't like what was in the refrigerator. He found on the table a sack of rice and a can of tomatoes. We kept all the fresh food in the refrigerator to stop spoilage, contamination by bugs, and other unpleasant surprises. He was very hungry and decided to cook some rice. He didn't know how to cook but looking at the rice he said to himself "I can cook this, it is not hard, what it takes is some water, oil, salt, and the tomatoes. When the water boils, I will put in the rice."
He put a pan on the stove with the ingredients that he thought he needed and when he saw the water boil put in a whole bag of rice that was 3 times as big as the capacity of the pan. He diligently stirred the rice. However, "Holy surprise!" Suddenly the rice started rising fast! The pan was almost full and he could not understand what was happening, but he was very hungry. He decided to eat a bowl of rice to make room in the pan. So he got a dish, he filled it with rice, and put in some cold water to cool the rice down. He started to eat, but he had to eat it faster. He quickened his eating again until the bowl was finished, but, by the time he finished the first dish of the rice, the pan was overflowing again. He filled another dish and wolfed it down, but unmercifully the rice kept rising and overflowing. He kept filling the bowl and wolfing it down as fast as he could. He was at his wits end. He was running from the stove to the table filling empty dishes trying to eat as much as he could. Luckily, I returned home from work. As I entered, for an instant, I was speechless; but then I turned the stove off, I put the pan with the still rising rice in the sink, and I tried to comfort my overstressed younger brother. He was red in the face, sweating profusely, and very nearly ready to cry. "Oh Sina," he exclaimed, "I tried not to spill the rice on the stove by eating it as it grew, but the more I ate of it the more it grew." I was ready to laugh, but I didn't want to humiliate my little brother, so I tried to comfort him. "It is all right, Tori, take it easy, you didn't know how to cook and now you do. It has been a good experience for you; do you want to learn how to make the sauce?" "Oh, no! Thank you, but no more cooking for me! I have had more than enough for a long, long time!"
Tori, of all the boys, was the most spoiled, he had a way with words and managed to get off easy in any situation. Tori was known for his winning ways by all of us. My parents had 11 children, the first child, a daughter, died when she was 8 Months old. At the time that I am recounting we were 10 children 7 boys and 3 girls.
My parents had a store that we called an emporium which was a store that was divided into 3 departments, a grocery department, a jewelry department, and, believe it or not, an ammunition and hunting department. "What an incredible combination don't you think?"
One day our father went home and forgot the store keys on the kitchen table, our mother sent Tori to go after father to give him the keys. Tori followed my father to the store but he found out that he no longer had the keys just before he had almost reached our father's store. He immediately turned back looking for the keys on the road he had just traveled, but he couldn't find the keys. He turned back to go after our father to the store where he found that our father realized that he forgot the keys. Our father had gone back home using another route to get them. When our father arrived home, our mother explained to our father that she had sent Tori to bring the keys to him. However, just then Tori entered the house. "Oh here he is!" Our mother exclaimed. "Tori," asked mother, "where are the keys?" Tori very calmly and smiling answered, "I lost them" (Tori was so young that he didn't remember or did not know that: in Italian you say ('ho perso le chiavi' which is 'I lost the keys') he instead said ('l'ho persate' which is 'I lost them'.) Everybody started to laugh. Since then when Tori did something wrong and was not punished everybody would say oh well! It is not a surprise that no one ever punishes him, he "l'ha persate."
Why was Tori almost, always forgiven? He is of medium height, has black eyes and brown hair, he has dimples on his checks and a nonchalant winning attitude with a conciliatory way to defend himself when necessary or to make others feel well. "Was he already a lawyer at 4 to 5 years old?" I wondered then. He is a lawyer and a justice of the peace now. The next is another episode that shows the uncanny conciliatory ways Tori used to put things right especially for himself. When mother was expecting him both she and father wanted a baby girl because they wanted to call her "Mariuccia "(little Mary)" one day while we were having supper and we were talking about the possibility of the arrival of another baby, mother told him "You know Tori when we were expecting you we wanted a baby girl to call her Mariuccia for the name sake of the Virgin Mary" instead we got you and you are a boy. He locked at them for a moment then said "oh mom don't be sorry about it because I can be both. You'll see, when I wear a dress I am Mariuccia and when I wear pants I am Tori. Everything will be OK." We all laughed and went on teasing him, but he was unperturbed and very seriously explained "what do you have to laugh about? Mother is a woman and wears a dress; father is a man and wears pants. Isn't that true?" Everybody became silent at the table for a moment, then another explosion of laughter followed his very serious explanation, only my parents did not laugh, mother took him in her arms and kissed him and said "Tori my beautiful child let them laugh, after dinner I and your father will explain to you why they laugh. Now look what I have made for dessert, your favorite chocolate cake."
We all stopped laughing and started eating the cake. Tori ate his piece of cake with gusto but between morsels he was looking at it in a pensive mood, then he exploded "you are all so stupid." Mother and father did not laugh. Did you notice? Why, do you laugh?" My older brother answered: "Tori wait until they tell you, we are sorry we laughed at you, you are truly still a baby." We were all excited at home because our aunt Rosaria, one of our father's sisters, had a married daughter who was coming to visit us with her husband Paolo. Tori waited with our father at the bus station for them. Tori after meeting our relatives ran into the store to my mother saying, "Mamma, Aunt Rosaria has brought with her a Palo" "A palo?" Answered our mother. "Why would she bring a palo (which is a grapevine support steak) here all the way from Reggio Calabria?" "No mamma, no! This is not a palo of the vineyard; this is a palo that walks." Tori couldn't pronounce Paolo, he could only say palo. Our mother started laughing and said "OK Tori, thank you for telling me. Because you told me I have, now, time to prepare myself for them. When we had a vineyard, we used to attach a long cross or stick to the vines, which we called a palo, to support the leaves and the grapes and keep the grapes standing up above the ground, Also because made it easier to harvest the grapes at harvest time.
Tori had a way of turning his body slightly back and forth, when he had to explain himself. It disarms, almost, anyone of anger or grief. Tori was born when I was a little over 8 years old. Our mother went to the store every day to work, leaving the children in the care of our aunt Teresa. Often, because she could not come to care for us and there was no one to care for Tori, our parents decided to pull me out school to take care of the baby Tori. I was devastated; I loved to go to school. Now that my life was without school, I wept and complained a lot. At that age I could change diapers, prepare the bottle for Tori, and twice a day bring him to the store to be breast fed by our mother. I soon grew attached to him and he took to me (I believe). In fact, after feeding he would put his little right hand in my bosom to fall asleep. He started talking very early, so much so, that he could not make a distinction between me and mother. He would call both of us mom. I have always been attached to him and (just like all of our family) always ready to make allowances for his actions.
After Halloween that year and because after three years I did not get the pay raise that per contract was due to me I quit a job that I liked. It was not an easy decision as I liked the place and the people I worked for. The reason for my quitting the job was my employers hired me at the top of the salary range for my job description. In three years they had relied on the fact that I made more money than allowed by my job description. I did not agree and I said so. In fact, I had previously been told by the same person that I did more and better work that anyone else before me, so I quit. In less than one week I found another job in an elementary school office. The search was not very hard. I read, in the local newspaper advertisement that there was a new job opening that, I thought, was good for me. I sent in my resume and got an interview within three days. This new job was a little further from home than the previous one. The public transportation to the job was long. I had to take, first a BART train then transfer to two other buses. Then I would have to walk a short distance. Enjoying walking to work, I realized that I could forgo the bus travel and walk directly from the BART station. I pondered the pros and cons of the problem and I found that in the end it was advantageous too. I would get more exercise and I would save money too. The walk would help me lose weight. I was happy I had the best of both worlds. I got more money and my exercise as well.
The school was located in an almost rural area that I liked. The building was old and had an imposing façade. I like stately old buildings. They make me think of the mysterious past. It was square and very large. When entering from a tall and large door. The visitor was surprised and could not help looking around to find out where he or she ended up. Soon after entering one was met by a large and long thick stairway. At each side there were two short corridors each brought the visitor to two different class rooms at the end of the stairway. There was a small office for a secretary at the right side the headmaster's office. The headmaster received visitors and took care of all the other endeavors pertinent to running the quite large school population. All around the large void created by the stairway there were spaces allocated to other activities not directly connected to the class room activities? The place was huge there were small and large entrance doors, people, mostly employees, went in and out the doors fast. The secretary who was seated just in front of the stairway readily helped whoever needed help.
One day I waited for the headmaster to finish a meeting with a young student. I, as the new bookkeeper, was stopped and impressed this meeting of the headmaster and a young schoolboy. The boy was seating on a small chair his head barely reached the knees of the head master He with an intent and serious face was listening to the head master who patiently was telling him that his behavior was diminishing his authority. The child was looking at him with understanding but no remorse. I had to descend the stairs and leave as the secretary was looking at me. I never forgot that picture. It registered in my mind with awe surprise and understanding with both parties. At the very beginning I did not like the school or the people that I met. Everybody was nice to me but for an unknowing reason I felt threatened and out of place, may be because the work was somewhat new to me. After a week I felt much better and more comfortable with my work and coworkers. Little did I know that the job would become unbearable and would end in four short months.
I knew that I was a little sensitive about my thick European accent. In this new job environment, there are always misunderstandings when dealing with new people. I knew that and I was determined to try very hard to learn fast and well. I hated to be behind in my work load. I got in the habit of arriving at work a few minutes earlier in the morning to prepare for the day's work. I usually did small jobs like copying documents or filing. One morning I found a sheet of paper face down under the top of the copier. I could see that someone had forgotten to pick up the original. I picked it up to see to whom it belonged. To give it back. It was a flyer for the staff. It proposed to play an April fool joke on the new bookkeeper tomorrow; meaning today. So they plan to play an April fool joke on me? I was surprised. Who would play a joke on me? What kind of joke would it be? Someone wanted to humiliate me on account of my accent, I told myself, "I bet this is the reason." I stopped for a moment, and then I said again. But no, maybe it is just a friendly joke. That day there was a much advertised show of new airplanes up in the sky. I thought to play a joke on everybody in the school. It had to be done before lunch when everybody was in the class room. At about eleven thirty Lucia went to the children's entrance that was on the other side of the building. The classrooms were on the first floor where the large stairway was. Lucia went to the top of the stairway and began to scream "please, everybody come out. The air show has started."
Excerpted from A Medley of International Short Stories by Teresa Cosco Heslop Copyright © 2012 by Teresa Cosco Heslop. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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