Early that morning me and Ellis saw that everything had been taken from the Don’t Touch room. We circled the empty space in slow arcs, the sound of our padded slippers bouncing off the naked walls and hardwood floor. It was the first time we’d heard our own footsteps or the echo of our whispers in the room, thanks to the absence of Mammì’s beautiful Persian rug that bore the weight of the furnishings with grace. It was now a gutted, barren place, even more foreign and jarring at 5 a.m. It carried the staleness of sagging ruins, a room that stopped and gave up once its insides had been removed. The emptiness blanketed us with a panic so thick it smothered every thought to fuzz.
Sissy, Ellis said, what do you think? He pulled at my pajama sleeve and I yanked it back, raised a finger to my lips. Don’t, I said, I don’t know yet.
Maybe we should do something.
Zitto, quiet, I whispered.
He slid his hands to his ear, clasped them together as though in prayer and tilted his head over to meet them. Mammì? He mouthed. I nodded, waving a hand around the room. Let’s just look around first, I said, and try not to wake her up.
There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. A room for outfits and occasions now snatched and deserted, save for a cud-colored footprint kitty-corner to where the cabinet had been. It was an uninvited mark on the place we dared not enter—not even at my first communion, when hidden-pocket-flask Uncle Mel, who liberally invoked the Don’t Touch exception clause between swallows and sips, waved us in.
We crouched low against the baseboards to inspect the footprint, motioning to each other in careful gestures so Mammì wouldn’t hear. I could count on Mammì to sleep heavily most of the time, but I didn’t want to chance waking her up like this, her clipping down the stairs faster than a falcon, me and Ellis not knowing what to say, her sighs turning to yelling turning to tears turning to dark quiet. Those days Mammì watched so much of our lives disappear and she wasn’t bearing it well. She was up nights and didn’t wrap her hair in olive oil and milk on Saturday mornings anymore, or take me and Ellis for ice cream. She just said something distant like, basta, while she switched from one nightgown to another.
Ellis started for the door.
Wait, I said, wrapping my hands around the short brass doorknobs Daddy made us polish every Sunday though no one had turned them. When Daddy was around he lorded over our chores and never let us slip no matter how often we pounded him with questions about it. He just threw up a hand all grave and official and tossed out answers sure to explain nothing. Y is a crooked letter, he often called out stiffly, his eyes never leaving the mountains of casebooks and red wells of files and transcripts on his desk. Within seconds he exposed and dismantled every plot we schemed to skip cleaning. It was only afterward, when we begged him to tell us how he did it, that he talked to us seriously. Everything you can imagine doing, he told us once, I already know.
I’m going, Sissy, Ellis warned. We have to tell Mammì.
I blocked his path with my whole body. He pointed his eyes sharply at me, motioned for me to step aside. No, I begged, not yet.
Because we need a plan, that’s why.
Ellis flung off his slippers and slid down next to me after some time. Let’s go soon, Sissy, he whispered, it’s too dark in here. I folded his hand in mine, told him to concentrate on making the room talk. We closed our eyes to lazy shapes of Mammì’s things, listened to the sound of our slow breath.
In the end all I saw was Christmas. Everything last Christmas.
• • •
Mammì was always big on La Vigilia, but never more so than that December. Industrious as an ant colony, she labored over the room until it was nice enough for Nonna and Nonno to celebrate with us. They came for two weeks and stayed into the new year, Nonna and Mammì cooking all sorts of fish, Nonno reminding me and Ellis vietato toccare every time we tried to finger the sharp edges of Mammì’s antique candelabra or the tissue-white petals of her tea roses. Nonno told us exactly what happened to kids like us in Bivona: they caught a cold present shaft from Babbo Natale, he said, senza dubbio.
Sometimes there were whisperings after meals over grappa when Daddy wasn’t around. Nonna asking Mammì how the marocchino afforded such a room; Nonno asking Mammì what business needed tending to late at night when Daddy guarded himself away in his office. Me and Ellis had been to Bivona enough to know that Daddy wasn’t no marocchino and hadn’t ever set foot in Morocco—he was black. And even though Nonna and Nonno knew this too, and knew well that he was a successful lawyer with his own practice, they said it to cut Mammì. To remind her that in 1984, she’d made a decision tailored to court the worst sort of malocchio upon me, Ellis, Bivona, everyone.
I didn’t want to chance waking her up like this, her sighs turning to yelling turning to tears turning to dark quiet.
Nonna read us a few ninna nanna before bed on Christmas Eve night. We didn’t let on that we were too old to be chastened by them, even when her eyes poured over with grappa and years and she mixed in homemade points on onore and omertà among family. Ellis giggled into my shoulder when Nonna asked whether we followed her. I shook it off with a sì Signora, let her end it by telling us ricordate sempre, always remember, before she kissed our foreheads and sent us away to brush our teeth.
Why does Nonna ask us to remember everything she says? Ellis asked me in English after Nonna left the room.
We stood together at the sink with our toothbrushes. C’era solo quella volta, it was just one time, I reminded.
Ellis overshot the paste, dropped a clump into the basin. I wiped it with my hand.
Well, he shrugged, shoving the toothbrush around in his mouth, she acts worried. She wants us to remember her stories like we’re going to forget them on purpose.
We don’t see Nonna all the time, I told him, maybe she’s afraid we’ll forget.
He considered the point before he spit, his eyes searching our reflection in the mirror. We don’t look very much like her, he said quietly.
I pulled open the medicine cabinet to take out the floss, cut him a piece. Maybe she thinks something else, I said. Maybe she wants us to remember her stories and think of her when she’s back home and we’re here.
He stretched the floss between his teeth. I think we look like Daddy, he said before starting on the bottom row. Doesn’t mean I won’t remember Nonna.
• • •
When the sun poked a hole in the sky we knew it was time to leave the house. There was plenty to discuss and no way to do it inside without waking Mammì and her going flip mode over the room. We decided to meet in Ellis’s junk wood fort in the backyard. I’d been inside only once while Daddy oversaw the gardener nailing the thing together. All the wood was Swiss-cheesed with craters that let the weather and bugs in and it smelled of outside and sludge. We took the quickest route—past the pool and straight through Mammì’s garden—our feet crunching stalks off flowers growing in swaths.
As we ran through a patch of daffodils, Ellis told me he believed the footprint in the room belonged to Daddy. He made me lower my ear to him before he let his voice drop, flipped over to Italian. I know it was Daddy, he said, abbiamo visto prima quell’orma, we saw that footprint before.
I squinted at the bright sun now shooting high beams of white through the pocked ceiling and walls in the fort, took a deep breath to stop the throb at the core of my throat. The air felt weighty and lifeless in my chest, as though I might not be able to push it back out.
Aura, he asked, do you remember?
I was surprised to hear my name.
Sissy, he turned to face me, I promise I’m telling the—
Alright, I stood, okay.
So you believe me?
Fammi sappere tutto, let me know everything, I said.
He told me we saw it a June ago when Daddy pulled us out early on the last day of school. We were headed to Grandma Flo-Flo’s place in North Carolina where we stayed most summers without Mammì or Daddy. Grandma’s house was always calm, always the same: big yellow pound cake, plenty of old photos of Daddy and Uncle Mel wearing wide-collared shirts and afros, cousins dropping in occasionally from D.C. and New York. We shucked bushels of corn laden with silk worms for Ellis to squish and pinned our clothes to dry on a clothesline in the backyard. We listened to Daddy’s old 45s of Joe Tex and the Ohio Players playing songs Daddy used to sing when we didn’t know him, but mostly, we felt a tremendous heat that gave moisture to the trees and listened to stories of family we would never meet told outside on Grandma’s deck, where fireflies blinked light stolen from the day into the people and places we came from.
This is how I will always think of Mammì. Covering my eyes before I can cover hers.
That day in June, the sprinklers went off before Daddy came to sign us out, and the manicured lawn at Our Lady of the Assumption Prep was heavy with water. We sat in the waiting area outside the principal’s office reading cards the nuns had given us. May God and the angels be with you on your summer travels, mine said. Ellis threw his colored plastic rosary at me, couldn’t leave it tucked inside his card. It’s a necklace, he said, for girls. Here comes Daddy, I sighed, tossing it back at him. We watched as Daddy, paying his nice suit and smart leather shoes no mind, smushed his way up the wet grass leaving a trail of footprints all the way to the office. He floated inside and joked with Sister Abigail, making her toss her habit back and stomp her shoe-buckled feet. I saw her bunchy tights crinkling around the nubs of her ankles and the tiny beaded pins on either side of her habit holding in place the starch-straight partition that hid most of her graying bangs. They stopped long enough for Sister Abigail to clasp Daddy’s hand in hers, bowing her head slightly. You are always welcome here, she beamed.
You really think it was Daddy? I asked, even though once he told it, I knew it was true.
Daddy, he nodded.
We decided on a stretch, a bugia—to run back to the house before Mammì woke up to make us breakfast, fill the room with our toys and books, make like we lent out the room’s furnishings to the family next door. A remodeling project. They would need our things to calculate measurements while they waited for their new room to be delivered. We shook on it twice before we made it back to the house where we found Mammì clawing at the walls in the room, a copy of the LA Times, misshapen and see-through with morning mist, at her feet.
My god, she said when she saw us, flinging her hands over our eyes. Oh my god.
This is how I will always think of Mammì. Covering my eyes before I can cover hers.
• • •
It happened before with a car.
The whole episode lasted so long, Mammì told us later it amounted to a month. Ellis would tell you the same because he crossed off the time on his wall calendar.
Me, I waited without counting.
Daddy had taken off in a new Porsche he bought for Mammì after the verdict was read on a case he prepped and prepped for and no one knew where he was, not his friends, not his office staff, not the guys he played basketball with in the park, no one at Los Angeles County Superior Court. Nessuno. He won his client a figure with a lot of zeros, Mammì told us, and he’d gone out to celebrate was all she knew. She knew plenty more, of course, driving me and Ellis around in silence over three different freeways looking for Daddy. She knew a bunch of spots to look, too: the Roosevelt; big, big houses in Hollywood Hills. We hit places in the Valley and whole other worlds like Chino and Pomona and Ontario.
Mammì talked to folks that never came to our house before, folks that clinked change around in a cup and asked for more at gas stations, folks who smoked in bars watching ladies dance without tops. No matter the distance we traveled or the people Mammì spoke to, the wind-up was always the same. Sure people knew him, they said, but no one had seen him. No one had seen him at all. I always wondered if they would tell us if they had, or if Daddy had his own legion of angels to protect him in his travels—a tacit code of shush amongst all these people he visited at night without us.
When he came back, he wore a stained shirt and blazer and his face looked rainy-sky gray under a parched beard growing in clumps. Daddy was always thin, but his cheekbones were especially sharp that day, and his eyes recessed far back into his head like they might not come out unless you went in and rescued them. It was a departure and then some from the guy who left our house on good days, a guy who could make Grandma Flo-Flo cluck to her friends about dignity and living right. He smelled like wind and weeks and Mammì wouldn’t let him anywhere near us. She brushed us up the stairs as soon as she saw him come in. We hid on the second floor landing, gripping the stair railing for balance, and saw it all going off in the foyer.
Where’s the car? Mammì asked.
Totaled, Daddy said.
I mouthed stolen to Ellis, he mouthed back lost to me. We didn’t stop to consider who was right because it didn’t matter. We knew that totaled was exactly what happened to the car, and that totaled was all Daddy intended to say to about it. Daddy was never one to drone on in a way that left anyone satisfied, but he was no liar. He might plod through messages and files all day at his desk while Mammì let loose whatever speech she prepared without pause, but he would say no more.
You have one day, Mammì said, get out.
Daddy tried to make his way to his office, but Mammì blocked him, started in on him right there. She stood small and furious on her toes, balling his shirt collar into her fist. Her big voice like a clap of thunder punching at the walls until the paintings and picture frames rattled.
The blood in my feet pinched with numbness from sitting on them and I couldn’t stop Ellis from building a wail. He rocked himself back and forth against the railing, stacking the wail in shivers at his shoulders, the wail working its way to his throat. When he opened his mouth, he shook so hard I shook too, his sounds drowning mine. He wagged his little finger at Mammì, cheeks swollen pink. He shouted, You can’t make him leave!
They didn’t bother to look up at us. We were like ornaments on a tree no one needed to look at to know it was trimmed. Mammì’s perfect La Vigilia soiled again with another of Daddy’s absences, except Nonna and Nonno weren’t around to point it out. Nobody said niente, even as Ellis began to dry heave, Daddy never looking past his feet to the hall closet, where suitcases spilled out all his clothes.
She stood small and furious on her toes, balling his shirt collar into her fist.
Mammì lay on the floor for hours until she realized that everything in the Don’t Touch room was gone forever. It was dark outside when we heard her telling Nonna on the phone that Daddy lost it this time because she had hidden all the checks and the credit cards. Una ricaduta, a relapse, she said. Mammì made one more call to Grandma Flo-Flo to ask if she could put me and Ellis on a plane to North Carolina while she straightened things out.
Florence, Mammì said, Florence, I understand it’s the middle of the school year, but I don’t think the kids should go through this again. Grandma Flo-Flo told Mammì she would come get us herself. She said we should expect her in the afternoon and that we could stay with her until things with Daddy settled again. Grandma didn’t really want me and Ellis at the treatment center for another round of program. The place is full of things my babies shouldn’t know, Ellis heard her confide in Daddy once.
• • •
The people at the Palms Treatment Center explained exactly what was wrong with Daddy. They said he could win against cocaine addiction if he tried with his whole heart for the rest of his life, that we could recover too if we did the same. Mammì dropped Daddy off there the night he said he totaled her car and she discovered he’d also made off with a television, a sofa, and some silver flatware.
Me and Ellis didn’t realize Palms would keep Daddy until he felt he was better or that they’d make all of us participate in a program. The staff required that Mammì and Daddy see a doctor on site—one who listened to problems—and attend meetings with other husbands and wives where everyone told stories about addiction, offered support. On Friday nights me and Ellis went to our own meetings too. They were filled with kids who had parents like Daddy.
I didn’t mind the whole thing, not really. It meant Daddy was trying to get better. Mammì was different. A few months of treatment and she decided she was done with all of it. She kept a tight watch over hours spent at Palms, swept us in and out in as much time as it took me and Ellis to play a round of dominos. We knew Mammì wanted us to absorb the healing in our meetings, but she also made it plain that she didn’t want us jawing with the other kids. In private she told Daddy to hurry up and do whatever it was he needed to do there. What can I tell you? he’d ask when she pressed.
• • •
Daddy was over 90 days sober when he stole the room.
He was still in treatment at Palms but had earned a pass to spend the weekend with us, took us to eat at Xochimilco.
Mammì used to say Xochimilco was a place just for our family. I never asked Ellis but I always felt that way too. In better times we ate there at least once a week. Big Owner had taken a liking to us, knew our names and gave us each a piña colada sucker on the way out.
It was the tiniest buca with hanging murals of bright flowers and long boats lining the canals of the Milpa Alta. Live bands played loud salsa or mariachi on weekends unless the old timers fussed at them when they felt like dancing merengue—made them play two or three dances worth if they were really showing out. Me and Ellis came to know it as the little place with boats and flowers and songs.
Go wash your hands, Daddy told us as soon as we walked in. There was no protest from me or Ellis because we always used the time to play in the kitchen where kids our age ambled in and out. They called Big Owner Tio and checked with him first before they dipped goblets into the watermelon horchata.
Big Owner slapped us five when he saw us and ushered us into the kitchen where Sheila E. channeled Prince with lace gloves and a tailed coat on a small yellow twelve-inch, its screen choked with smoke and grease. All the kids not dancing watched family members dice tomatoes and crumble cotija over bowls of salad.
We’re supposed to wash our hands, I said to no one in particular, motioning to the sink.
The only girl in the group, who appeared to be at least fifteen, handed me a small hand towel. She was the color of love, with long black hair and eyelashes like the ones some ladies bought on pink plastic trays at the drug store. Thank you, I said.
A woman pumicing garlic into paste called the girl Ileana, spoke to her in Spanish, and flicked her head our way. She says you have beautiful hair, Ileana explained before leaning down to cup Ellis’s face. And you, she told him, have very handsome blue eyes.
Ellis was uneasy. The Spanish sounded familiar but different enough, like the Sicilian dialect Zio Vittorio spoke to Nonna. He wasn’t sure so he said, Grazie tanto.
Ileana pulled him in for a hug. What a doll! she said.
A man with squat, tattooed arms ladling big dunks of salsa into black bowls called Ileana over to help him. I caught the woman with the garlic paste taking a second look at us. She studied our noses and lips, our tanned skin and light eyes. A mismatch. I stared back until she noticed me. She winked and turned back to Ileana. Panameños? she asked her.
No, Ileana said, tilting her head toward Daddy in the salon, who put up his hands as Big Owner threw soft punches at them all the way to our table. Mira.
The woman sawed an arm over small dots of sweat at her hairline and watched as Big Owner seated Mammì and Daddy. Ah, she nodded, mulatitos.
This wasn’t always my son, she told Mammì. Grandma always wore nice things and spoke with authority like Daddy.
Mammì was holding court with Daddy when we slid into the booth, me next to Daddy and Ellis next to Mammì, who still cut his food from time to time. Mammì said she’d been embarrassed at the grocery store when the checkout girl would no longer take her personal checks. Your account should be closed, the girl said to Mammì. She blew on the shrimp Ellis mangled into his tortilla. Bocca chiusa, mouth closed, she hummed before he started to chew.
He stopped short of bringing the fajita to his mouth. Mammì, Ellis said, what is a moo-lah-key-toe?
Mammì leaned to catch a piece of tortilla before it made its way to Ellis’s lap.
He means moolahteesko, I shook my head. They said moo-lah-tee-sko.
Daddy took a short drink of water, glared at me and Ellis with the type of glare that always straightened us out when we gave Mammì grief. The word, he said, is mulatto.
Mammì thinned her lips, shot her eyes from me to Ellis. Who said this to you? she asked.
Daddy put up a hand. Don’t get excited, he told Mammì.
But this is our dinner. We don’t need these people—
Relax, Daddy said, they should know this. Mulatto means that you are part of Mammì and part of me. It’s just a word out of a universe of words you haven’t met. Now I won’t always be here to explain what people say to you. People will do what they do, but both of you—both of you need to promise that you will allow no one to limit who you say and believe you are. You hear me?
Yes Daddy, I said, I promise.
Ellis, Daddy said, look at me and promise.
• • •
Grandma Flo-Flo put herself on the first plane out of Greensboro, made it to our house by noon the next day just as she told us. She walked around slowly in the Don’t Touch Room but didn’t say too much, didn’t ask any questions. She just folded a check into Mammì’s hand when she thought me and Ellis weren’t watching. This wasn’t always my son, she told Mammì. Grandma always wore nice things and spoke with authority like Daddy.
Me and Mammì sat on my bed packing a suitcase full of schoolwork she collected from our teachers to keep up with the class while away. You’ll be gone about a week, Mammì told me, until I can find your father and make arrangements. You’ll go tonight, she explained quietly, burying her head in my curls. You’ll sleep on the plane with Grandma and when you wake up, you’ll be in North Carolina. I could have been easy but I pouted. Non c’è posto, there’s no room, I said, kicking my social studies text when I couldn’t maneuver it next to Ellis’s science fair project. Mammì tapped a finger to my nose. In that tap I felt me and Ellis at Grandma Flo-Flo’s until the summer, maybe even the rest of the year.
Aura, she said, è così che vuoi lasciarmi, is this how you want to leave me?
I pulled the next suitcase onto the bed.
We weren’t supposed to leave until summer, I said.
The crying came in what ifs: what could be done if Daddy couldn’t be helped soon, or maybe not ever; what if Mammì ruined his recovery in some way; what if some distant relative’s malocchio stitched a path to her all the way in Pasadena—a reminder to all that she drained her family of its onore. I laid my head on her waist and coiled my fingers in the small, fraying threads of her robe. I never told her I thought she was wrong about all of it. I never told her one day I would decide that none of this was me.