"Sleeping With Fishes"
by Jerry Vilhotti

Johnny's birth was somewhat like a wave coming all the way from Orchard Beach to land all over Arthur Avenue in The East Bronx, surrounded by Irish down around Webster Avenue, Blacks on the other side of Fordham Road, Germans where the innocent man Hauptmann once lived before killed to death by the state and "others" who lived around the Saint Barabbas Hospital not quite yet assimilated into the American way of life, among two brothers and two sisters who had all ready been roughed up by the Great Depression for seven years with the boys and their shoe-shine boxes trying to garner the few pennies still around and the girls helping the mother make gloves for five fingers for those who believed God had made poor people so they could feel more worthy for having all their expensive material possessions while all the Sanque children wore shoes with the tops of detergent boxes covering the gaping holes in soles. Johnny would become the father's favorite. A father, who before Johnny was born, had gone off for days with any whore who could walk and smile at the same time leaving the four of them to go with their mother to beg for moneys from their maternal uncles who thought her husband was nothing but an animal and would tell her so as they doled out their money from little demitasse spoons. It was said on both sides of the ocean that dollar bills suffocated deep inside De Cielo pockets so seldom they saw the light of day or night.

On every Christmas Eve Morning, the day Johnny was born that brought a family together for the very first time, the whole interior of their apartment would begin to smell of fish - to the father's delight but to the mother's abhorrence since she detested all odors of fish - but if it were going to continue well, the tradition of the eating of seven fishes would have to continue so evil eyes could not nest in their trying to make a good life and like all those that came before them to the land of opportu nity they also would have to work their way up from six feet beneath the ground. At least they did not have to eat rocks while time weighed on their minds that were trying to be convinced they weren't dying from hunger.

Exactly six in the evening when the baby Johnny was allowed to be shown to his siblings, the linguine and clams in white sauce would be served. That portion of the meal had to be finished by six-thirty when Johnny had been placed under their very first Christmas tree, for the mother had never allowed for such costly things to be planted in her parlor, to share the center piece of the manger scene with the Baby Jesus.

Next came squid stuffed with white fish to be served with broccoli rape, a vegetable that often in the past had been thrown away by many of the vendors on Arthur Avenue for its bitterness but in time would become a sort of gourmet delight drenched in olive oil and garlic along with dry cod (baccala) mixed with broccoli and coated with lemon juice and a large salad covered with one portion of vinegar to two portions of olive oil. After this was eaten came the scallop-eel dish with mushrooms and lastly presented was the crushed red pepper marinated octopus swimming in a red sauce - which could not be a gravy that would have had meat juices in it as the eating of meat was a taboo that would have had all good Catholics joining the bad ones on their way to hell - and so it was that kind of redness that also encompassed the octopi that were looking up with the saddest of eyes into many directions just like the baby Johnny's eyes had looked up into the angry expressions of brothers and sisters who would always regard him as the intruder who came among them the day before Christ was born.


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