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He came out of the back, his apron bloody. The butcher Mr. Ribalta had the biggest belly I had ever seen. When he leaned into the case to grab a handful of hamburger or lop off a rope of sausage, his stomach grazed the meat. I wanted to poke his fat, to see if my finger would sink into it like pizza dough, or press my ear against him, to hear his insides sloshing and grumbling. But I hung back from the meat counter until he crooked a plump finger and beckoned me forward.
“Oh, Swiss Girl,” he called. “Yo-do-lo-do-lo-do-lay.”
I always eyed his Swiss cheese. I wanted to take a chunk of it home and slip it between a wedge of sharp pepperoni and a slice of salty prosciutto on a seeded roll. But Mama refused to buy it. “I don’t pay good money for holes,” she said. She frowned when Ribalta reached into the case to cut me a sliver.
People said Ribalta had a big heart, but Mama was convinced his heart longed for only one thing: to turn her into a big spender. Every Saturday morning before we left the house for the market, she armed herself with a black plastic wallet stamped with a picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a shopping list, and a green pencil stub she had pocketed after playing miniature golf at Palisades Park. Since my sister, Lina, thought she was too old for such outings, Mama took me — a mere nine-year-old who didn’t yet know how to protest — as a witness. I was supposed to make sure Ribalta didn’t try any monkey business, like doubling the wax paper or pressing his thumb down on the scale. Although Mama had patronized Ribalta for years, she still didn’t trust him. “It’s not like he’s family,” she said.
The market stood on a corner, the front windows lined with white paper, lettered in blue, that announced the weekly specials. Above the shop, behind windows hung with yellowed lace curtains, Ribalta lived with his mother. Mama called her Signora. For years I thought that was her first name.
In cold weather or warm, Mama and I found Signora out front, sweeping the dirt and litter off the sidewalk with a ragged broom that had lost half its dirty bristles. Signora reminded me of La Befana, the skinny old Italian witch who rode her broom over the rooftops on the Feast of the Three Kings, leaving toys for good children and coal and ash for the bad. She wore a black cotton coat over a flowered shift and scuffed gray mules with no stockings. Her brittle ankles and calves were mapped with thin blue veins. Signora was practically bald, but what little tufts of gray hair she had left on her pink scalp she clamped around wire curlers fastened with big silver clips. She held her broom still just long enough to peer at us through her cat glasses. When she was satisfied she had recognized us, she resumed sweeping.
Ribalta’s shop officially opened at nine, but we always walked in a little after eight-thirty. Brass bells clattered as the door swung behind us. Mama headed down the first narrow aisle, stopping once or twice to inspect some canned goods that sat on the high wooden shelves. “Cheaper at the A&P,” she announced loudly.
At the back of the store stood the gleaming white meat case, lit with fluorescent tubes that made the unit hum and vibrate. Behind the case was a swinging door and, behind that, the mysterious room where Ribalta butchered his meat while Radio Italia played. Mama went up to the counter and hit the silver bell on top with the flat of her hand. The radio went dead. We heard water running. Then Ribalta came out of the back, his breath heavy as he wiped his hands on a clean white cloth. He pushed his gold wire-rimmed glasses up on his nose. He was the only shopkeeper in our neighborhood who ever smiled at Mama.
Mama nodded back, her eyes on the case. Ribalta stocked it so the contents ranged from the reddest and rawest meat to the cleanest, tidiest rolls of processed food. First came the organs — bloody bulbs of liver, tough-looking necks, and limp hearts — packaged in clear plastic containers. Then came ground beef pressed in an aluminum tray, rump roast and flank steaks, coils of sausage, and a quilt of overlapping bacon strips. Cuts of pale pork and veal were followed by moist chicken breasts and piles of stippled yellow legs and scrawny wings. In a separate section of the case, Ribalta kept logs of prosciutto, mortadella, Genoa salami, and blocks of cheese.
Mama checked each item on her list against Ribalta’s prices. Then she placed the list on top of her wallet and firmly crossed off some items with the pencil stub. “Here’s what’s left,” she said. It always took Ribalta a long time to fill the order. Mama made him display each cut of meat, back and front, before she allowed him to put it on the scale. And when she said she wanted half a pound of something, she meant eight ounces, no more and no less. Ribalta knew better than to ask Mama if a little bit over was okay. He patiently lifted chop after chop onto the scale, while Mama watched the gauge waggle back and forth until it settled as close to the weight she had asked for as it would ever get.
After Ribalta had wrapped the meats in stiff white paper, tied each bundle with red and white string, and marked the price with a black wax pencil, he crossed his arms and rested them on his big belly. He knew exactly what Mama was going to ask for next.
“Any scraps today?” she said.
“For the dog, eh?” Ribalta held up one finger, meaning Mama should wait. He disappeared into the back.
I never understood why Mama kept up this charade. We didn’t have a dog and never would. “Good for nothing except to bite and bark,” Mama said, whenever I pleaded for one.
“If you hate dogs so much, why do you tell Ribalta we have one?” I asked.
“I tell him no such thing.”
“But you let him think we do.”
“I can’t help the ideas he gets in his head,” Mama said.
She waited impatiently for Ribalta to return with the scraps. He came back balancing a pile of metal pans. He displayed the contents to Mama and the haggling began.
“Veal bones,” he said. “With plenty of meat. Chicken necks, close to ten of them.”
Mama rejected the necks and offered fifteen cents for a bag of bones.
“Make it a quarter,” Ribalta said.
“For those sticks?”
“These are beautiful bones. Juicy. Tender. Flavorful.”
“Twenty cents,” Mama firmly said.
Ribalta never said done, fine, or okay. He simply moved on to his next offering. “Giblets. Fresh this morning. And these hearts, I saved them just for you.”
They went back and forth like that, until Ribalta ran out of scraps and Mama was satisfied she had bled him for whatever she could get. Ribalta stacked the white packages in a box. Then he winked at Mama and peered over the case at me.
“Oh, Swiss Girl,” he said. “Yo-do-lo-do-lo-do-lay!”
He turned, wiped off a cleaver, and reached into the case to whack off a hunk of the cheese. He handed it to Mama. She frowned when she gave me the cheese. “Say thank you,” she told me, before I could even open my mouth. To Ribalta she said, “You’re too generous.”
“Why not?” he replied as he wiped the cleaver. “Life is short.” Then he came around the side of the case, carrying Mama’s box. We followed him up the aisle. The strings of his apron stretched tightly across his broad backside. They were tied in a simple knot because there wasn’t enough give for a bow.
Up in front, behind the squat glass counter, Signora now sat on a wooden stool. Ribalta lowered the box onto the counter and left Signora to figure the bill with a pencil and paper. Signora lifted out the bundles one at a time and wrote down each price, totaling as she went along. Mama kept her eyes on that rising sum. Signora counted out aloud: “Due più cinque? Otto. Mi scusi, sette. Otto più tre? Dodici. Mi scusi, undici.” Nothing would have made Mama happier than nailing Signora in a mathematical error. But Signora always caught her mistakes and confidently bellowed the sum the way a railroad conductor announced the next station: “Sei dollari e sesanta due centi, per favore!”
Mama opened her wallet and counted out the bills. Signora took them, recounted them, then reached below the counter for a rusty Maxwell House coffee can full of coins. With her gnarled fingers, she dug through the coins to make Mama change.
Mama left the market with a satisfied look on her face. But after a block or two, when the box grew heavy and she switched the weight from one hand to the other, she bit her lip and wrinkled her brow, convinced that Ribalta had gotten fat off her business and hers alone. “Grassone!” she said. “Thinks I don’t notice that diamond ring.”
On his right pinky, Ribalta wore a thin gold band studded with a diamond. Mama often remarked on it. “Who else do you know owns such a swanky thing?” she asked me. I shrugged. No other man I knew wore jewelry — not even a wedding ring — except the archbishop, who came to our church once a year to give Confirmation. He wore a huge gold ring on his right hand that was supposed to hold a sliver of Christ’s cross. On our way out of church, we all knelt down and pressed our lips against the cold, pale blue jewel. The archbishop wiped his ring with a little red cloth after each person had kissed it, the same way Ribalta wiped his cleaver before and after he cut me a piece of cheese.
Ribalta didn’t go to church. Sundays, my mother and my aunts gathered together on the sidewalk after mass and stared after Signora, who hobbled home alone. Then they turned back into a circle and began their attack against the butcher.
“What does the man eat, pasta e fagioli six times a day?”
“How can he breathe with a belly like that?”
“How does he move his bowels?”
“They say he sings in a band.”
“Fat as an opera singer.”
“If he sings so well, why isn’t he in the choir?”
“Have you ever seen him at mass?”
“He should be there.”
“He’s a bachelor.”
“That’s his problem.”
“He’ll have a heart attack.”
They blamed Signora. They said she spoiled him, babied him, cooked him whatever he wanted. They said that after she died, he would lose a little weight. Find himself a girl. Get married and have children. Why not? He was still young enough. He had a kind face. Most important, he owned a family business. In our neighborhood, that was the ultimate sign of having done well for yourself. The only thing better was getting in with the post office or phone company.
Every afternoon when I fetched the newspaper off the front porch, Mama paused a few moments from her housework to scan the obituary page. One day she snapped the newspaper open and pointed to a picture with triumph.
“Ribalta’s mother,” she said.
I looked for the helmet of hair clips and wire curlers, the scraggly neck crisscrossed with lines, the silver cat glasses and pinched cheeks. But the hair was full as a wig and the face smooth, as if air had been pumped into it.
“That’s not her,” I said.
“Stupid,” said Mama. “It’s an old photograph.”
“The name’s wrong too.”
“What? Gelsomina Ribalta, that’s right.”
“But you called her Signora.”
Mama laughed. She spent the rest of the afternoon on the phone, repeating the story to my aunts. “Imagine, I had to tell the bimba it meant Mrs. How much more American can these kids get? I wonder who’ll sit behind the counter now. He’ll have to find some girl, and quick too. Yes, tonight, at the Torino Funeral Home. Burial on Tuesday, the paper said.”
For three days after the funeral, the shop was closed. A black ribbon hung from the door, and upstairs all the shades were drawn. The weekly specials remained the same. I made a sign of the cross as I passed on my way to school. I was frightened that Signora’s spirit still lingered in the world, that I’d hear the swish of her broom on the sidewalk and the clatter of her bony fingers, sorting through the Maxwell House coffee can to make change.
On Saturday morning I stuck close to Mama on the walk to the store. When we arrived, the front door was locked. Mama pulled at the handle to test it again. Then she peered through the door. The glass grew foggy with her breath. A boy stood in the front aisle, stacking loaves of bread on the shelf. He turned. Mama rapped at the glass. The boy held up his wrist, pointed to his watch, and then went back to stacking the bread. Mama was astounded.
“The sign says open at nine,” I pointed out.
“That sign has hung there for years. Signora always opened.” Mama bit her lip, then rapped at the glass even harder.
“Aspettino,” the boy called out.
Mama turned away. “Figures,” she said. “A real paesano. Speaks no English. Lazy.”
I could tell she wanted to knock even harder at the door, pull at the handle, and yell at him. But Mama held herself back out of respect for Ribalta. We waited two or three minutes in the cold before the boy came to the door. He was older than he seemed at first, about twenty, and short and erect, with muscled arms and a firm chest that swelled beneath the bib of his clean white apron. He had close-trimmed black hair and dark, liquidy eyes with long black lashes, high cheekbones, and a moist, pouty lower lip. A gold medal hung on a chain around his short, solid neck. I fell in love with him instantly.
“It’s about time!” Mama huffed when he let us in.
He looked at us as if he didn’t understand. Mama strode past him without even a nod. “Off the boat,” she muttered, as I followed her down the first aisle. I turned back to look at him. Maybe he didn’t understand English, but I was sure he caught the drift of Mama’s loud Cheaper at the A&P. He stood with one hand on the counter and watched as Mama hit the bell on the meat case. Ribalta came out slowly, wiping his plump, squat hands. Radio Italia continued to play.