Authors: Rose Kent
To Mom, who always believed I would,
and Dad, who taught me a little Latin
ou wake up and you're fourteen. The world is your supersized soda waiting to be guzzled, right? Wrong. My birthday tasted more like Coke that went flat.
Make that flat Coke with cookie crumbs from my little sister's backwash.
Not that I
on a lousy birthday. After all, I'm Joseph Calderaro, eighth-grade optimist. The bag of barbecue chips is always half full in my mind. As I searched for my Yankees T-shirt that morning, I tapped out my favorite band tune with my drumsticks. I was ready to hit
the halls of Johansen Middle School bursting with I'm-all-that attitude. I couldn't wait to hear “Happy Birthday to Joseph” chants from cute girls in the hallway between classes. And of course, I expected to uphold my family's tradition of gorging on my favorite dinner. Fried calamari. Eggplant Parmesan. Chocolate cake with gobs of cannoli frosting. Even the whines from Gina and Sophie couldn't ruin that meal.
Little did I know that my burned Pop-Tart breakfast would be a sign of trouble ahead. Or that the day's events would spiral downward, just like that pastryâfrom strawberry frosted and gooey good to black-on-the-bottom and smoking bad.
I should've known better, what with all the comic books I've read: villains wreak havoc when you least expect it. In this case, the villain struck during second period. I was tilting my desk chair back, feeling mighty proud of the “To Burn or Not to Burn” project I'd turned in, analyzing a constitutional amendment against flag desecration. I'd surrounded the poster's edges with flag toothpicks, and I'd taped power quotes from two Supreme Court justices.
With ten minutes left in the period, Mrs. Peroutka started lecturing about the upcoming unit: immigration.
I was still feeling thirsty and sweaty from the mile run in gym, never mind sleep deprived from gluing toothpicks until eleven thirty last night. Nothing Mrs. Peroutka said was keeping my attention, especially with that warm breeze rattling through the blinds.
Nothing, that is, until she dropped a slab of cement on my head. It came in the form of a handout, but trust me, it caused quite the emotional concussion.
“I have an assignment for you,” she announced, with a diabolical twinkle in her eye.
As soon as I read the top line of the paper, my heart started racing like I was back on the track running.
Tracing Your Past: A Heritage Essay
“Before we discuss the assignment, I'd like you to consider this: Who are your ancestors?” she asked.
Next to me, fellow drummer Steve Nestor popped his arm straight up. “Dead people with your same last name?”
Robyn Carleton chuckled in the back row. She appreciates all jokes, especially mine.
“Indeed, our ancestors are dead
related,” Mrs. Peroutka replied, “but they are much more than that. Each one of your families owns a patch on America's collective immigrant quilt: the dreams and the struggles of your kin who came before you. Ancestors are your
personal link to yesterday.”
Ugh. Faces around the room looked pained. Honestly, who gives eighth graders an essay in May? Maybe fall, or even January, when you're guaranteed at least one snow day. But a May essay is a low blow, what with June around the corner, the month in which we break out of the middle-school penitentiary forever.
Mrs. Peroutka droned on, her voice deep like a narrator on the History Channel. Then she gave us the dirty details. Required words: fifteen hundred. Double-spaced. Blah blah blah. She stood poised by the chalkboard, her hand clutching a pen in midair like the Statue of Liberty, and rambled on about digging out old photos and interviewing family members. But I tuned out right after hearing “your ancestors.” I didn't know diddly about my ancestors.
Right before the bell rang, Mrs. Peroutka told us the essay was part of a Celebrating Your Heritage campaign that had kids across America tracing their lineages back to over 175 countries.
“Like that's supposed to make us want to join hands with other eighth graders from sea to shining sea,” Steve whispered to me.
After class I waited at the lockers for my buddy Nash, and we walked to the cafeteria together. I told him this
birthday felt as lousy as the woodwinds playing “Rock with Bach.” Nash is in band tooâhe plays trumpetâso he totally got what I meant.
“I can't believe we have to do a social studies essay in May,” I complained.
He groaned. “How many words?”
Nash uses the bazooka technique for writing papers. He strings together all these run-on sentences that stretch longer than a wad of bubblegumâjust to hit the required word count.
“What kind of teacher serves up a paper after a project?” Nash said, shaking his head.
I told him the topic of the essay was part of the problem too. “You know what I wanted to tell Mrs. Peroutka? I don't need fifteen hundred words. Two will wrap it up nicely: I'm adopted.”
As soon as I sat down at the lunch table, more bad fortune revealed itself from under the plastic wrap. Mom had mixed up my sandwich with Gina's. I was stuck with peanut butter and banana slices, a hideous combo surely created to make POWs talk.
Nash caught my disgusted look and stared down at my sandwich. “Yuck. That looks nasty. Poor you.”
“So much for special treatment on my birthday,” I said.
He passed me some pretzels. “Your lunch might stink, but at least your mom's making your favorite dinner, right?”
I nodded, thinking about Mom in the kitchen slicing and salting eggplant and sprinkling cheese. She'd taken a day off from the hair salon to shop and cook.
I shoved the sandwich back in the bag and bit into a pretzel. “You're right, Nash. I won't let old Peroutka be the Grinch who steals my birthday. So come over tonight ready for one grandioso Calderaro feast.”
read crumbs come in regular or Italian. So do suits, though Dad says the Italian ones fit better across his thick shoulders. And I know Mom wouldn't dare make her chicken cacciatore with anything but Italian plum tomatoes. But who knew that jewelry was made especially for natives of the boot-shaped country? And why should I, of all people, care about that?
“I'm so stuffed that eggplant Parmesan is coming out my pores,” I said to Nash as we waited for Mom to finish slicing the cake. Not that second helpings of dinner
would stop me from digging into dessert. Nash can eat me under the table, and he'd still fit in an envelope. Me, from the moment I arrived from Korea, I was nicknamed Buddha Baby. The name fit then and it still does, though I'm not really fatâjust stocky with a barrel chest and stubby arms and legs.
“Mommy said for us to get the presents,” Sophie said to Gina in what Mom calls her “eight-year-old Mussolini voice.” My twin sisters scooted out from behind the kitchen table with Frazer, our plump old boxer, trotting behind them. They were back in a flash, carrying boxes they could barely hold. One fell out of Gina's arms and she quickly picked it up, though she didn't notice the bow sticking to her knee.
But Nash and I did, and we laughed. He's used to my wacky family. Pete Nash moved to Nutley in first grade. Back then kids called him Nash Potato because he brought mashed potatoes and gravy in a thermos for lunch all the time. He took some brutal teasing about that thermos, but he kept showing up with it anyway. Which I can understand because his mom's mashed potatoes taste mighty delicious.
“Wait! Don't open any presents until you read your you-know-what, Joseph,” Mom said. “For good luck. It's under your plate as usual.”
Rats. I thought Mom forgot about that weird horoscope tradition. I lifted my plate and unfolded the clipped newspaper page.
Taurus: Understand that you are entering a new chasm of change. Any benefits or gains you make this new year may not be obvious at first, though the pain is.
I frowned after I read it. Funny thing was, I
feel different. And not just because my voice was starting to crack and I was getting a hairy-creature-in-puberty look. Melodramatic “Who am I?” questions kept popping into my mind all afternoon. Probably because of that rotten essay assignment.
Mom must have noticed my expression. “Don't read bad into it, Joseph. Change can be good. Yesterday I turned a washed-out brunette into a stunning blonde, and she was thrilled with
“Can we eat our cake now? I'm starving!” Gina whined.
“Yuck. Cannoli frosting,” Sophie groaned.
“It's Joseph's birthday, remember?” Dad said, sipping his coffee. “Go ahead and open your presents, son.”
I started ripping through shiny paper and shouting
out the “Wow, you shouldn't have!” comments that parents get all gushy about. And I
like my gifts, especially the Spider-Man alarm clock that I'd been eyeing at the mall. Spider-Man is The Man, and my hero. I love how his alias, Peter Parker, forgets stuff and blabs dumb comments to girls like the rest of us. But in the end he always delivers the spider goods. Which is to say he saves the world, tells a joke or two, and beats the sinister snot out of his archenemy, Venom.
Nash likes comic book heroes too, though his favorite is Wolverine, the furry X-Man with retractable claws. Not that we discuss this stuff in school. Being known as a comic book dork is worse than wearing jeans that fit right, or a ski hat with a giant pom-pom.
The next gift was a video game from Mom and Dad, the very one I was hoping for. I guess writing “Get Joseph a video game” in washable marker across Mom's hairstylist station mirror did the trick. Then Gina and Sophie gave me a huge bag of peanut M&M's, and Nash gave me a joke book.
“Without further ado, let's hit the game controls,” I told Nash after my last forkful of cake.
But Dad stopped us. “Wait a second, Joseph. Mom and I have one more present for you.”
“I'll get it, Vinny.” Mom walked into the laundry room
and returned with a small box.
“What is it? What is it?” Gina jumped in her chair.
My fingers ripped through the wrapping paper. I opened the box and then I saw it: a gold chain with a tiny gold horn, shaped like an antler.
I almost blurted out, “What the heck is this thing?” when I remembered how Dad wears something like this all the time. It's on the same chain as his crucifix, and it bops up and down when he's doing push-ups. And the last time we visited our relatives in Florida, I noticed Uncle Biaggio had one on when he went swimming.
. A goat horn, Joseph. Italian men wear it for good luck. Legend says that it protects against the
. You know, the evil eye. Satan's work.” Mom narrowed her eyes like she always does when she talks about warding off dark spirits.
Nash looked at Mom like she was an exorcist. Which Mom sort of thinks she is. She's always talking about how the
comes when people get cocky, causing others to cast jealous, bad luck glances. She talks about it with this doubting grin like she's way past believing a silly superstition that started in Italy hundreds of years ago, but we all know she buys into it. At least a little.
I looked over at Dad. His bald head beamed from the
fluorescent lamp, and he was grinning like he does when he finishes reading one of those classics. “I got a
from Grandpa Calderaro the year I turned fourteen. I don't know about warding off dark spirits, but it means you're on your way. Growing up. Wear it and be proud.”
“Try it on,” Mom said.
“Yeah, put it on, Joseph.” Dad leaned back in his chair proudly, the way the Pope does after Easter mass.
Put it on?
No way. I sat there, speechless, looking down at the frosting flower on Mom's piece of cake. I didn't know
to say. Boy, was I glad that Nash was a best friend who wouldn't blab my incriminating moments to others.
“I'll help you.” Gina picked up the chain and tried to put it around my neck.
I put my hand out. “Stop, Gina.” I stuck the
back in the box.
“What's wrong?” Dad looked confused.
“My neck's hot,” I said, rubbing it, and thinking what a nightmare it would be to get caught wearing this in the locker room. Guys at school would think a goat horn looked even weirder than the smiley face boxers Chuck Beski wore last week. And if they did know about the
, that probably meant they were Italian, so they'd
sure wonder why it was hanging around
“What, you don't like it?” Dad asked.
“I didn't say that.”
“Well you might as well have,” he replied. Almost on cue, the vein near Dad's forehead started pulsing in a one-stroke pattern like drum rudiments.
Bum, bum, bum. Bum, bum, bum
. That happens whenever he's upset. We call it his Mad Meter. Dad has his own window-washing business, and one time this snotty rich lady tried to pay him less than what she owed. That got the Mad Meter pulsing for hours.
I could tell Nash felt funny being caught in a Calderaro clash because he started looking around the kitchen, as if scrubbing the crusted sauce pot suddenly sounded appealing.
Mom noticed the Mad Meter too, so she tried to left turn out of the topic. “Pete, do Irish people have any special jewelry?” she asked.
Nash shrugged. “My mom wears a Saint Brigid's cross that's made out of rope, and my sister, Nancy, got a Saint Anthony medal when she graduated from high school.”
“He's the patron saint for lost things,” Mom said, smiling at Nash. “Italians love him too.”
Nash nodded. “Nancy's always losing her car keys.”
Sophie picked up the chain and frowned. “I don't like the
either, Daddy. We saw a movie in school about how mean people rip the tusks off elephants. My teacher said the people who buy the tusks make everything worse.”
“I think you watch too many movies in school,” Dad snapped. “What happened to books?”
“Down with animal cruelty! From now on, I'm a vegetarian,” Sophie declared.
I looked over at Dad's forehead.
Bum, bum, bum
. The Mad Meter synchronized better than our sixth-grade drummers.
Funny thing was, when I looked at the
, it reminded me of school too. How I had nothing to write for that dumb ancestry essay.
Then Gina joined in the cause. She's always a me-too kid around Sophie. “Don't wear that horn, Joseph. Everyone has to stop hurting elephants and goats!” She banged the gift box against the table, nearly knocking into her cake plate.
Gina's face was so serious I couldn't control myself. I burst out laughing. Even Nash laughed.
But Dad didn't. The Mad Meter had stopped, and now he looked sad. “It's not a real goat horn. See what you've started, Joseph? A little gratitude would have been nice.”
“I am thankful, it's just that I'm notâ¦” I stopped myself. This wasn't the time or place, as Mom likes to say.
?” Dad asked.
I didn't answer.
Dad shook his head. Then he put his mug and cake, untouched, in the sink and walked out of the kitchen.
“Mr. Calderaro's not big on dessert,” Mom said to Nash. As if that explained everything.
I felt rotten. Worse than any nasty virus you could get from the