Best Seat in the House
Me-me says that Heaven is full of fluffy white clouds and angels.
That sounds pretty swell, but how can you sit on a cloud? Wouldn't you fall right through and smack onto the ground? Like Frankie always says, angels have wings, so what do they have to worry about?
My idea of Heaven has nothing to do with clouds or angels. In my Heaven there's butter pecan ice cream and swimming pools and baseball games. The Brooklyn Dodgers always win, and I have the best seat in the house, right behind the Dodgers' dugout. That's the only advantage that I can see to being dead: You get the best seat in the house.
I think about Heaven a lot. Not because of the usual reasons, though. I'm only eleven, and I don't plan on dying until I'm at least a hundred. It's just that I'm named after that Bing Crosby song "Pennies from Heaven," and when you're named after something, you can't help but think about it.
See, my father was crazy about Bing Crosby, and that's why everyone calls me Penny instead of Barbara Ann Falucci, which is what's on my birth certificate. No one ever calls me Barbara, except teachers, and sometimes even I forget that it's my real name.
I guess it could be worse. I could be called Clementine, which was the name of another Bing Crosby song that my father really liked.
I don't think I'd make a very good Clementine. Then again, who would?
The Lucky Bean
Uncle Dominic is sitting in his car.
It's a 1940 Plymouth Roadking. It's black with chrome trim, and the hubcaps are so shiny, you could use them as a mirror. Uncle Dominic pays my cousin Frankie to shine them up. It's an awfully nice car; everybody says so. But then, it's kind of hard to miss. It's been parked in the side yard of my grandmother Falucci's house for as long as I can remember.
Uncle Dominic lives right there in his car. Nobody in the family thinks it's weird that Uncle Dominic lives in his car, or if they do, nobody ever says anything. It's 1953, and it's not exactly normal for people in New Jersey to live in cars. Most people around here live in houses. But Uncle Dominic's kind of a hermit. He also likes to wear slippers instead of shoes. Once I asked him why.
"They're comfortable," he said.
Besides living in the car and wearing slippers, Uncle Dominic's my favorite uncle, and I have a lot of uncles. Sometimes I lose track of them.
"Hey, Princess," Uncle Dominic calls.
I lean through the window and hear the announcer on the portable radio. Uncle Dominic likes to listen to ball games in the car. There's a pillow and a ratty-looking blanket on the backseat. Uncle Dominic says the car's the only place he can get any rest. He has a lot of trouble falling asleep.
"Hi, Uncle Dominic," I say.
"Game's on," he says.
I start to open the back door, but Uncle Dominic says, "You can sit up front."
Uncle Dominic's very particular about who's allowed to sit in his car. Most people have to sit in the back, although Uncle Nunzio always sits up front. I don't think anyone ever tells Uncle Nunzio what to do.
"Who's winning?" I ask.
"Bums are ahead."
I love the Brooklyn Dodgers, and so does Uncle Dominic. We call them Dem Bums. Most people around here like the New York Yankees or the Giants, but not us.
Uncle Dominic is staring out the window, like he's really in the ballpark and watching the game from the bleachers. He's handsome, with dark hair and brown eyes. Everyone says he looks just like my father. I don't remember my father because he died when I was just a baby, but I've seen photographs, and Uncle Dominic does look like him, except sadder.
"Got something for you," Uncle Dominic says.
All my uncles give me presents. Uncle Nunzio gives me fur muffs, and Uncle Ralphie gives me candy, and Uncle Paulie brings me fancy perfumes, and Uncle Sally gives me horseshoes. It's like Christmas all the time.
Uncle Dominic hands me something that looks like a big dark-brown bean.
"What is it?"
"It's a lucky bean," he says. Uncle Dominic is superstitious. "Just found it this morning. It was packed away with some old things. I got it for your father before he died, but I never had a chance to give it to him. I want you to have it."
"Where'd you get it?" I ask.
"Florida," he says.
Uncle Dominic loves Florida and goes to Vero Beach every winter, probably because it's too cold to live in the car then. Even though he lives in this car, he has another car that he uses for driving, a 1950 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Frankie says he bets Uncle Dominic has a girl down in Florida, but I kind of don't think so. Most women want a new Frigidaire, not a backseat.
"Put it in your pocket," he says. "It'll keep you safe."
The lucky bean is big and lumpy. It feels heavy, not the kind of thing to put in a pocket, but Uncle Dominic has this look about his eyes like he might just die if I don't, and because he is my favorite uncle, I do what I always do.
I smile and say, "Thanks, Uncle Dominic."
For a moment the strain leaves his eyes.
"Anything for you, Princess," he says. "Any-thing."
It's a hot, sticky June day. School is out, and for the first time in months I don't have to worry about Veronica Goodman being mean to me. I used to like school, until this year. I probably wouldn't have survived if Mrs. Ellenburg, the librarian, hadn't let me hide out in the library. Lucky for me, Veronica Goodman doesn't like to read.
The lucky bean rubs in my pocket as I walk down the street toward my house. I live with my mother and my other grandparents, Me-me and Pop-pop, and my poodle, Scarlett O'Hara. Even though she's named after a famous lady in a boring movie, Scarlett O'Hara isn't very ladylike. Scarlett has bad breath and likes to chase squirrels and has taken to tinkling on the good carpet in the parlor lately, not to mention other things she shouldn't be doing.
Pop-pop's sitting in the parlor when I get home. He's listening to the radio and has got it turned up loud enough that the whole neighborhood can hear it. His favorite program is Fibber McGee and Molly, although he'll sleep through just about any program these days. We don't have a television set because Me-me says they're too expensive, which means they'll probably buy one right after I graduate high school and move out.
"I'm back," I announce.
"What's that?" he asks.
"I said, 'I'm back,' Pop-pop," I say loudly.
"What?" he asks. "What?"
Pop-pop's a little deaf. Me-me says he's been deaf ever since 1918, when he came home from Europe with shrapnel in his leg. She says he left the best part of him somewhere in France, along with his ability to listen to anyone.
There's a bad smell in the room.
"Pop-pop, what's that smell?" I ask.
"Sure, I'll take an iced tea," he says.
I spot the little brown lump behind the love seat. It looks kind of like the lucky bean Uncle Dominic gave me. Scarlett O'Hara's nowhere in sight.
"Look what Scarlett did," I say.
"Darn animal," he grumbles. Pop-pop can hear okay when he wants to. "That dog of yours is sneakier than the Japs."
Even though we're in a war right now in Korea, Pop-pop still loves talking about World War II, especially Pearl Harbor and how the Japanese attacked us when we were sleeping. He says it's the worst thing that's ever happened on American soil. No one saw it coming.
"Downright cowardly is what it was," he always says.
I don't remember the war because I was too small, but I sure am glad we won. Eating breakfast in our house is tough enough without having to worry about being bombed by the Japanese.
"Penny!" Me-me calls from the kitchen.
We have a two-story house. Me-me and Pop-pop live in the top part and Mother and I live in the bottom. My grandparents have their own bedroom, bathroom, and parlor, but they take all their meals downstairs with us because there's just the one kitchen. In fact, Me-me does most of the cooking, since my mother has to work. She's a secretary at a truck factory.
Me-me is standing with her back to me, facing the stove, when I walk into the kitchen. Her hair is going gray, and she's got it up in a bun. She's wearing a cotton dress with a red cherry print.
Me-me loves colorful prints, and she also has a dress with cabbage roses, one with fruit segments, and another one with daisies. My favorite is the dress with the Hawaiian palm trees. I think it would be fun to go someplace like Hawaii. It's got to be more exciting than New Jersey.
I don't have to look in the pot she's stirring to know it's peas and onions. The smell fills the air. Me-me likes to boil vegetables until they are pure mush and every bit of flavor is gone. I didn't even know peas could be sweet until I tasted them fresh off the vine at my grandmother Falucci's house.
"What's for dinner?" I ask.
"Liver," she says, and I have to make myself not groan.
Me-me's liver is worse than her pot roast, which is worse than her beef Stroganoff, and you don't even want to know about her meat loaf.
"Set the table, please," Me-me says.
I take the green glass dishes out of the cabinet and carry them to the dining room, where there's just a table and chairs and a sideboard. On the sideboard is an old clock and a framed photograph of my mother and father on their wedding day. We don't talk about my father in this house because it upsets my mother. I guess she's never gotten over him dying like he did and leaving her with a baby. She used to be a nurse at the hospital where he was taken when he got sick, but she said after he died, she couldn't go back there, that there were too many sad memories.
In the wedding photograph, my father is wearing a dark suit, and his arm is around my mother's waist as if he's scared she's going to run away. My mother's wearing a white satin dress and carrying a bouquet of sweet peas. Her hair is long, past her shoulders, and curled like a movie star's. She's smiling at the camera like she's the luckiest girl in the world.
She looks so happy, I almost don't recognize her.
Me-me has been staring at the clock for the last half hour while Pop-pop and I watch the liver and peas and onions get cold. Scarlett O'Hara is sitting next to Pop-pop's chair, waiting for something to fall from his plate, which is usually a good bet.
Pop-pop takes a long slurp of iced tea and burps loudly. A moment later he burps again.
"Pop-pop!" I say.
"What?" he says with a scowl.
Honestly, I don't know which is more embarrassingScarlett O'Hara doing her business in the house or Pop-pop burping all the time. And Mother wonders why I never want to have friends over for a slumber party.
The front door opens, and Me-me straightens her shoulders and sits a little taller.
"Sorry I'm late, Mother," my mother says, unpinning her hat and slipping into her place at the table.
She's wearing a plain navy-blue suit and has wavy golden-brown hair, cut short, just below her ears. She uses Tangee rouge on her cheeks and a little bit of red lipstick. The Tangee rouge is the fanciest thing about her.
"Do you know what time it is, Eleanor?" Me-me asks, looking pointedly at the clock. "It's seven-thirty, that's what time it is. What kind of place is that man running?"
"Mr. Hendrickson had some last-minute dictation," my mother says.
Me-me looks at my plate and says, "Eat your peas, Penny."
I take a bite, forcing myself to swallow. They're just awful. They taste like something you would feed someone you were trying to torture.
Pop-pop is poking the liver with his fork. "I thought you said we were having steak," he complains. "This looks like liver."
"Hi, Bunny," my mother says to me, and I can hear the tiredness in her voice. "How was your day?"
Bunny is her nickname for me. She said she took one look at me in the hospital and I looked so small and sweet that she knew I was a bunny.
"Look what I got," I say. I dig in my pocket and pull out the lucky bean and put it on the flower-print tablecloth.
Pop-pop starts choking when he sees it. "Did you bring a dog turd to the table?"
Scarlett O'Hara barks as if to deny she has anything to do with it.
"It's a lucky bean," I explain. "Uncle Dominic gave it to me."
"Lucky bean?" Me-me scoffs. "The only lucky thing"
"Mother," my mother says in a warning voice.
"Your father's people," Me-me says to me with a shake of her head. What she means is that they're Italian, and Catholic.
Me-me and Pop-pop are plain old American, and Methodist. They go to church every Sunday, and usually make me go too. My mother doesn't go to any church at all.
"Here's a good one, Penny," Pop-pop says. He loves jokes. "Why does the new Italian navy have glass-bottom boats?"
"To see the old Italian navy!" he hoots. "Get it? Their boats are at the bottom of the ocean!"
My mother looks down at her plate and sighs.
"Mother," I say, "Uncle Ralphie says he'll hire me and Frankie to work at the store a few days a week. Can I? It could be my summer job."
Uncle Ralphie is one of my father's brothers. He owns a butcher shop.
"What will you be doing?" she asks.
"Sweeping up, stacking, delivering groceries."
"Deliver groceries to strange people's houses? You're a young girl," Me-me says, sounding appalled.
"I don't think so, Penny," Mother says, which is what she always says.
My mother's afraid of just about everything that involves fun. I can't go swimming because there might be polio in the public pool. I can't go to the movie theater because I might catch polio there, too. I can't go on the bumper cars because I could hurt my neck. Don't do this, Penny! Don't do that, Penny! It's too dangerous, Penny! Any-thing could happen, Penny! Sometimes I want to say that the most dangerous thing in my life is Me-me's cooking.