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He watched the red drops descend in the water. The color swirled and twirled as it faded into pink. As he added more to the water it darkened. “Jimmy, no! What are you doing?”
Seven-year-old Jimmy Natale felt a familiar pain. His butt knew the sting of the wooden spoon. He theorized by the time he was ten, it wouldn’t hurt anymore. His brother had been whacked so many times he didn’t even cry anymore. As far as he was concerned, his theory was sound.
“Why were you putting food coloring in the water?” His mother, Betty, demanded as she grabbed the vase and ran to the bathroom to dump out the red water.
Jimmy stepped down from the cushioned bench and pushed it back toward the sign-in desk. He looked at the floor. Jimmy’s thick black hair fell into his eyes. “I wanted the flowers to be red,” he said.
His mother filled the vase with clean water and rinsed the flower stems. “Why did you do that?”
Jimmy scratched the back of his head. “Well, we did an experiment in school and we made white carnations blue. They were so pretty I thought the lilies needed color, too.”
Jimmy’s mother looked at him and saw the tears welling up in his eyes. Her face softened and her tone warmed. “Jimmy, honey, lilies are supposed to be white. White is for souls returning to their innocent state.” She bent down and wiped away the tears on Jimmy’s chubby little cheeks. “Sugar Lump, please don’t do this again. It’s important that everything is right for Mrs. Marazzo. Her family is coming in an hour to discuss the services for her funeral. OK?”
“Yes, Mama. I’m sorry. I thought they would be prettier.” Jimmy said as shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Mama hugged Jimmy. He loved Mama’s hugs. She always smelled like garlic or lavender depending on if she had been in the kitchen or the office. She said the lavender helped keep people calm during hard times. The aroma of garlic meant food and Jimmy loved food. He especially loved his mama’s cooking.
“Everything OK up here?” Jimmy’s father’s hoarse voice broke the moment. Joe Natale came up from the basement. He popped a stick of gum in his mouth. Jimmy liked the smell of Papa’s shirts when he stopped smoking. They were like the mint gum he chewed to help him stop. Mint was way better in Jimmy’s opinion.
Mama took a breath in, held it, and exhaled, making a breathy “ooh” sound as she did. “Yes, Joe,” Mama said. “Your son was trying to help make things more colorful.” Mama stood up, straightened her dress, and went to kiss her husband. Before she got too close, she stopped and squinted her eyes. “Have you been working on someone or doing office work?”
“Office work, dear.”
“OK.” Mama leaned in and kissed Papa on his rough cheek. “When was the last time you shaved?”
Papa rubbed his chin. “This morning. The same as every other day.”
“You may need to make it twice a day. Your five o’clock shadow is an hour early.”
Joe posed like a body builder, flexing and stretching to show off physique. “Not my fault. I’m too masculine for that razor.”
Betty rolled her eyes and smiled. “You might try sucking that belly in before you strike a pose next time.” It was that sense of humor that made Betty fall in love with Joe so many years ago. Joe was quite the looker when he was in his twenties. His hair was more blue-black than his younger son’s. Jimmy called it Superman black because they both had blue highlights. After fifteen years of marriage, there were now streaks of white snaking through the black curls on Joe’s head. And Betty loved him more now than the day she married him.
If you asked Joe, Betty was still easy on the eyes. She was a little doughier in the middle than she used to be. Two pregnancies managed that. Pasta and bread were also to blame. Betty was as much a fan of her own cooking as her family was. Her eyes seemed to squint, but that’s because she wore a smile most of her days. Even before she turned forty, the crow’s feet had set up permanent nests by her dark brown eyes. She always wore her jet black hair swept up in a large neat bun at the crown of her head.
“Well, we thought we heard some commotion up here so I wanted to check.”
“You heard that?” Jimmy’s brown eyes grew large and his ears turned red.
A sing song voice chimed in from the stairs, “Yeah, we did. Everyone did. People back in Sicily heard you.” Jimmy’s older brother, Michael (Mikey to Jimmy), sat on the stairs grinning like a bobcat.
Jimmy pulled at the collar of his shirt. It wasn’t the stress of being in trouble. He was wearing a hand-me-down shirt from his older brother. Even though he was three years older and two feet taller, both brothers weighed the same. Michael would pass his clothes to his younger brother. He couldn’t say little brother. There wasn’t anything about Jimmy that was little. He was already a head taller than his classmates and outweighed most by at least twenty pounds. Betty did her best to let out Michael’s old clothes but there was only so much one woman could do with so little fabric.
“Michael, mind your own business and get back downstairs.” Joe reprimanded.
If ever there were two brothers that didn’t look like they came from the same family, it was the Natale boys. The two boys were the perfect example of opposites in looks. Michael Natale was already five and a half feet tall. “The boys must get their height from Nonno. He was almost seven foot tall,” explained Joe. He was a little jealous of the boys’ heights; Joe stood most his life at five feet four inches tall. Michael was the only member of the family with hair the color of coffee. Not that anyone would notice because he preferred his hair cut short. The ten-year-old slid back down the stairs.
Joe turned to his younger son and said, “Mrs. Marazzo’s family will be here soon. Why don’t you go upstairs while Mama and I help them?”
“OK, Papa.” Jimmy hugged his mother and father.
“That’s a good boy,” Joe said as he tousled his son’s hair.
Jimmy bounded up the stairs to his room. It was his favorite room in the whole house. He liked the kitchen and all the wonderful smells that came from it. Sundays were his favorite. That was when Mama made her pot of spaghetti sauce and meatballs. Jimmy also liked Papa’s office. The chairs were so big, soft, and comfortable. There were pictures on the walls of flowers and the ocean. “It helps people feel better if they can see beautiful things,” Papa explained. Boxes of tissues sat on every flat surface.
The rest of the rooms were OK but none were like his room. Jimmy loved the fuzzy warmth of his flannel sheets, even in the heat of summer. He loved the multi-colored glow of the Christmas lights. His mother had to talk to him at least three times a week about reading by the Christmas lights instead of his desk lamp. A small fake pine tree stood in the corner of his room. Jimmy would spray pine scented air freshener around his room every night. He loved looking at the holiday cards on his walls. Jimmy had been collecting them since he was two-years old. Betty and Joe knew there was something different about their second born child. While five-year-old Michael was busy shaking boxes and trying to peel the tape without tearing the paper, Jimmy grabbed the cards off the packages. Betty followed him to his room. That’s when everyone noticed Jimmy’s collection. Jimmy had over fifty holiday cards tucked under his pillow.
All kids loved Christmas and Santa but Jimmy’s love and devotion was different. Jimmy was the only toddler not crying in line to see the mall Santa. Betty had to hold him in her arms or he would have run straight to his idol. This was his first visit with Santa, and he wanted to impress him. He wore his little Santa suit complete with black, shiny boots. When Jimmy’s mother put him on the Santa’s lap, Jimmy grinned from ear to ear. He watched the Santa without blinking. “And what do you want for Christmas, little boy?”
Jimmy stood up on the Santa’s lap and leaned in to whisper in his ear, “Be Santa.”
The mall Santa wrinkled his brow and looked at Betty. “Did he say, ‘Be Santa.’?”
Betty nodded. “Yes, he did. He loves everything about you.”
It was true. In, Jimmy’s preschool class all the other kids wanted to be mommies, firemen, police officers, or pet doctors. Jimmy stood in front of his class and said loud and clear he wanted to be Santa. For show and tell in first grade, Jimmy brought his Santa doll and told everyone how his mother made it for him.
It wasn’t just about getting presents or Santa Claus. Everything about Christmas fascinated him, especially the colors. Everything in his daily life was black, white, and gray. Except during Christmas. Then Mama would pull out the green tree, the red velvet tree skirt, and the gold and silver trimmings. Everything was brighter and happier, and Jimmy loved every minute of it.
Jimmy hated seeing the crying people all the time. Widows who had lost their husbands. Brothers planning for sisters who died of cancer. He remembered how his father offered to do the service for a kid in Jimmy’s class. It was weird for Jimmy when he saw the small casket. He had only ever seen the big ones. That was the first time he realized kids can die, too. He hated everything about that day. Christmas was the one time Jimmy got a respite from the harsh realities of life. He relished the thought of two weeks without getting beaten up. Jimmy could sleep without fear of what the next day held for him. He didn’t have to worry about going to the bathroom or walking down the hall. It was glorious, and he wished it lasted longer.
He loved all things that Christmas offered: the happy music that was so much different from the sad hymns Mama played at the funerals, the love that even his brother showed him, the family time of seeing his aunts, uncles, and cousins. And the food. Oh boy, did Jimmy love the food. Every year they would go to Nonna’s house for Christmas. For as much as Jimmy liked his mama’s kitchen, he loved his Nonna’s house that much more. There were no white lilies here. Instead, Nonna set out red poinsettias. Jimmy relished the day when he didn’t have to wear his black suit and starched white shirt. No tie with its knot choking him and digging into his neck. Instead, he got to wear his red sweater and blue jeans. Nonna’s house was bright and loud and warm. It was amazing. And Jimmy could always count on his favorite aunt to deliver his favorite present of the year. Every year, Aunt Diane would give Jimmy and Michael matching Christmas pajamas. Jimmy would wear those pajamas until they were too small. Then, he would inherit Michael’s.
Jimmy sat in his room, basking in the glow of the Christmas lights strung on the walls. He hugged his stuffed Santa Mama made for him as he lay comfy cozy in his jammies. He could hear his mother and father greet the Marazzo family. The Natales offered their condolences and coffee. The voices and footsteps below faded as they walked to the office to discuss the formalities and process. Jimmy drifted off to sleep.
“Psst. Jimmy! Hey, Jimmy! Wake up,” his brother whispered.
“Mikey, I’m sleeping, go to bed!” Jimmy rolled over to face the wall.
“OK. I guess I’ll have to take this meatball back to the kitchen.”
Jimmy shot up out of bed, snatched the meatball from his brother’s hand and devoured it in three bites. “Any more?” Jimmy asked as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
“Yup. In the fridge.” Mikey said, dragging out each word in a deep voice.
Jimmy swallowed hard. His mouth ran dry. Maybe Mama used a good deal of bread crumbs. Maybe it was the thought of being out of his room at night. “Is there—is there anyone in the basement?” Jimmy whispered.
“Nope. The basement is all clear,” Mikey assured his younger brother.
Jimmy sighed. His stomach rumbled. That one meatball was enough to get his stomach going. He hated falling asleep through dinner. His knees felt weak, and he started to sweat but hunger was a great motivator for Jimmy so out the door he went. First, he stuck his head out of his bedroom door and listened. The only sounds were Papa’s snoring and the occasional car driving by. Jimmy tiptoed down the hall. He counted the third board from the right. That one always creaked loud enough to wake the dead. That’s the board that got him caught waiting up for Santa last year. He made it to the kitchen and crept toward the fridge.
“I said nothing about the parlor though.” Mikey whispered in Jimmy’s ear
Jimmy’s heart pounded hard in his chest. “What do you mean?”
“Mr. Rosetti is laid out waiting for services first thing in the morning.” Mikey informed Jimmy.
Jimmy ran straight back to his room, dove under the covers, and curled up with his Santa doll. The last thing he heard before he fell back to sleep was his brother’s muffled giggle as he walked back to his bedroom.
“Hey, Fat Boy, whatcha got for lunch?” the voice cut across the din of the lunchroom. Jimmy’s stomach lurched when he heard Dante’s rough voice calling across the lunchroom. He tried to find a spot to sit but there wasn’t any room or spot close enough for him to escape. “I’m talking to you, Fat Boy” Dante said as he pushed Jimmy to the ground. All the food on Jimmy’s tray went flying in the air. The taco meat landed on the floor. The re-fried beans landed on Jimmy’s head. Salsa covered his white school shirt. Jimmy looked up and saw his classmate, Rosemary, looking at him. She picked up her taco and tray and moved to another table.
Jimmy knew how comical it was to everyone else that Dante beat him up. The top of Dante’s head only came up to Jimmy’s chin. Jimmy outweighed him by thirty pounds. It wouldn’t have taken anything for Jimmy to give one good punch and solve the problem once and for all. But Jimmy hated confrontation. He tried anything to avoid it at all costs.
Dante knew that and he used it to his advantage. It made him feel good he could dominate someone so much bigger than himself. Dante played big and tough at school. But Dante had a few secrets. At home he was not the king of the court. Dante’s father was domineering and abusive. The other secret was the reason Dante had just started at St. Richard’s School. Dante transferred from St. Joseph’s School where he was known as Fat Boy. Dante’s father made him run laps around their block all summer. He was also put on a strict diet. Dante’s father weighed and measured everything he ate. There was no chance Dante’s father would have a fat son ever again.
“Leave me alone, Dante,” Jimmy said. He tried to push himself up but his hand slipped in what used to be his taco meat.
“I don’t think he wants to share with you, Danny.” One of Dante’s cohorts, Tracy, snatched Jimmy’s backpack off the ground and emptied it out. Each book, each paper each pencil dropped one by one on top of Jimmy.
“Is that true, Fat Boy? You don’t want to share?” Dante kneeled down and got close to Jimmy’s face. Jimmy didn’t know if the nauseated feeling in the pit of his stomach resulted from the bullying or Dante’s breath. Jimmy knew better than to ask if the bully ate a dead skunk for breakfast. “That hurts my feelings,” Dante said as he pinched Jimmy’s cheek. Dante stood up and patted Jimmy on the head. He used the hand he wore his large, gold ring on.
“Why you gotta be so rude, Fat Boy?” teased Mario. Jimmy used to be best friends with him until this year. It was another slap in the face that someone he trusted would treat him so shamefully.
“Hey, Danny, maybe that’s why he’s so fat. He don’t never share his food with no one.” Auggie chimed in as he chugged Jimmy’s chocolate milk.
As Jimmy tried to push himself up onto his hands and knees, Dante kicked him in the stomach. “I didn’t say you could get up!” Jimmy grabbed his stomach and curled up in a ball. But he didn’t cry. He couldn’t. He couldn’t breathe. It felt like no matter how hard he tried to breathe he couldn’t get enough air into his lungs. His throat burned and his eyes stung.
“Why you crying, Fat Boy? You find out Santa ain’t real?” Dante jeered. His gang all laughed with him. And then there was a cracking sound. The whole lunchroom stopped and fell silent. Dante was lying on his back in a puddle of vanilla pudding. Mikey stood over him, holding a lunch tray in his hand.
Mrs. Michelle, the lunch room monitor, came running over to the scene. “Oh my goodness, why are you on the floor? Is he awake? Is that blood or ketchup?” She flitted between the Jimmy, Mikey, and Dante’s gang interrogating each. “Who did what? Who said what? You hit him with what?”
Finally Ms. Peddy, the principal, walked in to the lunch room. “What’s the problem here?” she looked at Jimmy who was still holding his stomach but at least upright thanks to Mikey holding him. Dante snored and drool. “Same problems, different day, huh Jimmy?” Jimmy nodded his head. He was afraid too much motion would cause the contents of his stomach to pour out. “I think we need to get him,” pointing to Dante, “to the nurse and call his parents. You boys,” she said pointing to Michael and Jimmy, “follow me. Mrs. Michelle, take the rest of this motley crew to see Mr. DeVore.”
“That’s not fair!” Auggie yelled.
“Would you rather have your father come and get you?” Ms. Peddy asked looking over the top of her glasses. Auggie knew he should keep his mouth shut. He would be in enough trouble. It was detention for however long Mr. DeVore saw fit.
Mikey leaned over to Jimmy and whispered, “It will be OK. You didn’t do nothing wrong.”
But all Jimmy could do was worry. He worried every day. Jimmy hated this school and these kids. He hated being the Fat Boy. Jimmy tried. Mama tried. They all tried. She packed him carrots, apples, peanut butter, and salads. He ate that. And then got lunch at the counter. He ran up and down the three story stairs at home. And had a stash of Twinkies under his bed. Mama even bought Richard Simmons’ videos. All that did was get Jimmy listening to Jerry “The Geator with the Heater” Blavat on the radio. That was the only thing he listened to that wasn’t Christmas carols. He walked to and from school. And he stopped at the corner store to buy a donut and chocolate milk every morning. Jimmy got a pretzel and soda every afternoon. Papa didn’t even own a car. But still, there he was, thirty pounds too heavy for his age and height. That’s what the doctors said. Mama said there was just more of him to love.
It took forever to get to the office. “Sit,” Ms. Peddy said, pointing to the two metal folding chairs in front of her desk. Jimmy’s heart was racing, and he felt like he would puke or pass out. He couldn’t tell which would happen first. He looked over at Mikey who looked like he won tickets to the ballgame. The boys took their seats and waited. Ms. Peddy made a steeple with her fingers as she sat in her rolling black leather chair. “You know I will call your folks, right?”
Jimmy’s lip quivered and his feet tapped against the chair legs. Mikey shrugged his shoulders, “Yeah, I figured that.”
The principal looked at Jimmy and handed him a box of tissues. He tried to quell the new tide of tears forming in his eyes but gravity was too much and pulled them down his pudgy cheeks. “Do you need to see the nurse or would you like to go home when your mom or dad comes for Michael?”
“Go home, please,” Jimmy squeaked. His throat was tight and his eyes burned.
“OK. I’ll call right now. Why don’t you boys sit on the bench in the hall?” The brothers stood up and walked out of the principal’s office. Jimmy looked at the floor as they walked out. He wanted no one seeing he had cried. He also was checking the floor. It didn’t feel like a floor. It felt like when they would go to shore and his feet would get stuck in the wet sand.
Once they were on the wooden bench, Michael looked at Jimmy. “How’s your belly?” Jimmy lowered his head.
“I think I’m gonna puke.”
“Yeah, rat bastard kicked you hard.” Michael’s hands tightened into fists.
Jimmy chewed on a cuticle. “Is he right?”
Mikey shook his head and pursed his lips. “Nah, you’re not fat. You’re just big, That’s all. And he’s an asshole.”
Jimmy shook his head. “No, not that. Dante talked about—” Jimmy paused and looked down the halls. He knew how much grief he would get if anyone heard him. Satisfied no one was around to hear him he spoke “Dante said Santa wasn’t real!”
The older Natale brother smacked his forehead. “That’s what you’re worried about? Come on. You know Santa is real. Every year you get something, right?” Jimmy nodded. For as long as he could remember Santa had never let him down. Even the year Mama and Papa said there wasn’t enough money for presents. All he wanted was a soccer ball and there it was on Christmas day waiting for him. “Santa won’t ever let you down. He’s like Mom and Pop and me. OK?” Michael Natale stood by the sibling credo: I’m the only one allowed to beat up my sibling. He may have been mean to his brother at home but at school he was Jimmy’s hero. Jimmy often wished Mikey would just be nice to him all the time. But he figured half the time is better than nothing.
“OK.” Jimmy felt better. He forgot about his stomach and his pride. And then—
“What did you do?!” Jimmy and Michael whipped their heads around to see Mama storming in. Jimmy slid down on the bench.
Michael jumped up from the bench. “Ma, I can explain.”
Mama cut him off before he could go any farther. “Oh! I think you’ll have plenty of time to explain. Two weeks grounding.”
“Ma! That’s not fair!” he pouted
“Not fair is having to come down you to get you. Not fair is having to figure out what to do with you for the next three days.” Mama pushed her first born out of the way to get to Jimmy. “Are you ok, Sugar Lump?” she brushed his dark hair away from his face.
Jimmy pushed her hand away. “I’m not a baby!” Jimmy ran out the door and sat on the front steps. He cried so much already. He didn’t want to cry again. His jaw clenched as he fought the tears back. The door opened behind him. Jimmy used his sleeve to wipe his nose.
“Don’t do that. It’s hard to wash out,” Mama said as she creased her forehead. Michael walked a few steps behind them. Betty made him carry his brother’s backpack and his own. He dragged his feet with every step. “Do you want to talk about it?” Mama put her arm around Jimmy’s shoulders.
He stiffened and pulled away from her touch. “No. I want to go home.”
Mama let him go and they walked in silence all the way home. Papa stood at the door, waiting for them to get home. “We need to talk to your brother. Go upstairs and wait for us to call you.” Michael’s shoulders sagged after dropping the backpacks by the front door.
Jimmy trudged up the stairs. He plugged the lights in and sat on his bed. He stared at the pictures on his wall. Blue backgrounds with sparkly snowflakes. Happy little elves loading presents on the sleigh. He even had one with penguins and polar bears exchanging gifts. Many of the ones he loved the most featured the man in the red suit. He reached for his stuffed Santa. “You’re fat and happy and people love you. Why can’t I be that? Why can’t I be you?” He looked into the doll’s eyes. “Are you real?” Silence. Tears flowed. Jimmy sniffled and buried his face into the doll. “Please, tell me you’re real. I need you to be real.”
Hear it here: https://youtu.be/mRInrVYWxkA